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NYC to Become First Jurisdiction in U.S. that will Guarantee Free Legal Representation for Low-Income Tenants in Housing Court

The Landmark Legislation, Known as the "Right to Counsel," Offers Blueprint for Cities Across the Country

 

New York, NY – The New York City Council today voted to pass Intro 214-B, a landmark bill sponsored by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, that requires the NYC Office of Civil Justice to establish a program for legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court within five years, in addition to establishing a pilot program to provide legal services to all NYCHA tenants in administrative proceedings this fall.

New York City is the first jurisdiction in the country to require legal representation in housing court, sparking similar measures to be introduced in other cities, including Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

The legislation, first introduced by Council Member Levine in 2014, calls for the City to provide New Yorkers with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line – or $49,200 annually for a family of four – free legal representation when facing eviction or foreclosure. The program is expected to help tenants in more than 400,000 New Yorkers each year, according to a report by commissioned by the New York City Bar Association. Mayor Bill de Blasio has indicated his intention to sign the bill.

In 2015, nearly 22,000 New Yorkers were evicted from their homes. Only about 20 percent of those facing eviction are represented by an attorney, compared to nearly 100 percent of landlords. Studies show that having legal representation during housing court proceedings reduces the chances of eviction by 77%, and in some cases landlords simply drop their cases after learning the tenant has an attorney.

Prior to the passage of the bill, Council Member Levine fought to increase funding for anti-eviction legal services, from $6 million in FY14 to over $60 million in FY17, resulting in a corresponding 24% drop in evictions in the last three years.

For tenants such as Ms. LeVera S. of West Harlem, whose landlord moved to evict her after she fell behind on her rent, a lawyer paid for by the City was the only thing keeping her from being forced from her home.

“Having a free housing attorney was vital in saving my home when my landlord brought holdover actions to evict us, claiming we had no rights,” said Ms. LeVera S. “Our attorney’s representation and assistance in subsequent harassment cases has been vital to me in keeping my home. I’m incredibly grateful to the City for passing this bill so that no New York tenant has to face eviction in housing court without representation.”

The City’s Independent Budget Office reports that eviction is the single most common reason that families in New York City end up in shelters, and over the past decade, the share of families citing eviction as the cause for their homelessness has increased dramatically. Evictions are also leading to a loss of affordable housing, as over half of the units vacated are rent stabilized, and many of those apartments then go market rate.

The full cost of implementing the Right to Counsel is estimated to be $155 million, but the City is estimated to save up to $320 million by reducing shelter costs, preserving regulated, affordable apartments lost to evictions and other costs associated with homelessness.

“Too many of the most vulnerable New Yorkers face eviction simply because they don’t have the means to hire an attorney. Today, the passage of this bill marks the beginning of a new era for tenants in New York City,” said City Council Member Mark Levine, lead sponsor of Intro 214. “New Yorkers have a right to affordable housing and to a fair justice system. No longer will low-income New Yorkers have to fend for themselves in Housing Court. This new law is an historic step forward in the fight against unlawful evictions. I am honored to stand alongside my colleagues as New York becomes the first city in the country to guarantee legal representation for low-income tenants in Housing Court, and I look forward to working with elected officials across the country to draft similar legislation.”

“This is a monumental day for tenants and a historic day for the City of New York.  After four years of advocating, rallying, and marching, we can finally celebrate the passage of ground breaking legislation that will curb the homelessness epidemic and end the cycle of eviction plaguing New York City. With a right to counsel in place, tenants facing eviction will finally be on an even playing field with the landlords taking them to court. I am proud to have spent four years fighting for this critically important legislation and am so thankful to the many elected officials, advocates, tenant leaders, clergy leaders, and civil legal service providers who joined Council Member Mark Levine and me in bringing equity and justice to our housing court system,” said City Council Member Vanessa Gibson.

“An individual’s socioeconomic status should have no bearing on their access to competent legal representation, especially when it comes to matters being handled in housing court,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “With this legislation, the Council reaffirms its commitment to protecting tenant rights across New York City, and I thank Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson for their relentless dedication in pushing this legislation forward and pursuing justice for New Yorkers across the five boroughs.”

"I applaud this historic vote to ensure every family who faces eviction can get the help they need. NYC's powerful example has inspired us in Philadelphia, where last month we took our first steps towards expanding legal representation for low-income tenants with a new dedicated funding stream. We are seeing our nation's cities come together to end the vicious cycle of eviction that keeps so many residents in distress and poverty," said Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym.

“We’re facing a massive affordability crisis and housing challenges like never before. With cost of living skyrocketing, we need to help working families get by,” said Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. "No tenant should face eviction alone. That’s why ‘Right to Counsel’ is morally right – and financially smart. It will prevent unfair and illegal evictions, keep families in their homes and off the streets, and mitigate homelessness by keeping New Yorkers out of the shelter system. It’s a bold plan that speaks to who we are as a city. I want to thank Council Member Levine for championing this critical cause.”

“For too long, unscrupulous landlords have wielded housing court as a weapon against lower-income tenants. The Right to Counsel legislation is a huge step forward in protecting tenants rights and ensuring that every New Yorker has a safe and affordable home. I applaud Council Members Levine and Gibson on their tireless work to pass this breakthrough legislation,” said NYC Public Advocate Letitia James.

“For too long the deck has been stacked against low-income tenants, most of whom do not have attorneys, because most landlords have representation in housing court. That is no longer the case, thanks to the achievements of this incredibly important ‘Right to Counsel’ legislation,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “Together, we have struck a blow for a more fair and just housing court, and that is something we can all be proud of.”

“The power imbalance we see too often in Housing Court is a thumb on the scale of justice,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “Establishing a right to legal counsel in Housing Court is the right thing to do, will help keep New Yorkers in their homes, and will combat a major aggravating factor worsening our homelessness crisis. Congratulations to Councilmembers Levine and Gibson and the many, many tenant activists who worked to make this victory possible.”

“We applaud the Speaker, lead sponsor Councilmember Mark Levine and the Council for passing this vital legislation that will ensure that low-income tenants in the city have the legal support and representation they need when they are facing eviction,” said 32BJ President Hector Figueroa. “This legislation will help level the playing field and ensure that New Yorkers get a fair trial in housing court and more of them can stay in their homes.”

“Passage of Intro 214-B is an astounding, monumental victory.  A victory for human and civil rights.  A victory for equality and justice.  A victory for the right to be treated with dignity and respect in court, regardless of income.  A victory for the right to safety and security in one’s home and community. And a victory for New York City.  And passage of Intro 214-B is a powerful testament to the masterful organizing and advocacy of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition and its many member groups and allies, and to the visionary, tenacious leadership of Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson.  This is a moment to savor, said Andrew Scherer, Policy Director, Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School.

This ground-breaking legislation will help tenants and all New Yorkers,” said Beth Finkel, State Director for AARP New York. “It will prevent wrongful evictions and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by keeping New Yorkers in their homes and out of the shelter system. AARP thanks City Council Member Mark Levine, his Council colleagues Vanessa Gibson and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the entire Council and Mayor de Blasio for coming together to protect New Yorkers.”

“As a CASA leader and person who was in a complicated eviction case I am proud that NYC is taking leadership by passing right to counsel. This right will give tenants a fighting chance to navigate complicated and technical processes of housing court! Today NYC takes a stand to listen to balance the scales of justice in housing court. By having a lawyer stopped me from being homeless and being in a shelter after being in court for 2 years,” Randy Dillard, a tenant organizer at CASA.

“Too often eviction and displacement is the cause of poverty and the unraveling of our communities,” said Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice of The Legal Aid Society.  “Today’s passage of this bill works to remedy this injustice by providing attorneys to low-income New Yorkers in housing court.  The availability of legal services will decrease evictions, prevent homelessness and finally address the uphill  battle against landlords tenants face each day they walk into housing court.  In the end, we know that the preservation of our communities in safe and affordable housing is good health, education and economic policy.  We applaud Speaker Mark-Viverito and Councilmembers Levine and Gibson for this bold step forward.”

Jenny Laurie, Executive Director, Housing Court Answers said, “Housing Court Answers congratulates the New York City Council at this historic passage of Right to Counsel for tenants facing eviction. This will provide a quantum leap in eviction prevention. Going forward, tens of thousands of tenants who can’t afford lawyers get will fair treatment when in Housing Court or in administrative proceedings.  Thanks so much to Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson for working with the Right to Counsel Coalition – and to the hundreds of tenants who worked on this campaign to win full access to justice for New York City tenants.”

“The passage of this bill means that, for the first time anywhere in the United States, all low-income tenants will get the legal help they need to keep their homes,” said Legal Services NYC Executive Director Raun Rasmussen. “This new law will be life changing for thousands of New York City residents who no longer need to live in fear of the catastrophic impact of eviction on their health, education, safety, and general welfare. Thanks are due to the Mayor, the Speaker, Council Members Levine and Gibson, and the Right to Counsel Coalition for their strong leadership. These days, when much of the news is grim for our clients, this is a historic moment that we all should celebrate.”

“This is truly an historic moment in the tenants’ rights movement.  The legislation will help to stem the loss of affordable housing by providing legal representation to New York City’s low-income tenants facing eviction, thereby leveling the playing field in Housing Court where landlords have historically had the upper hand.  We thank Council Members Levine and Gibson for sponsoring this legislation, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mayor de Blasio and HRA for its leadership in passing this legislation, and the Right to Council Coalition – led by tenants and tenant organizations – for its leadership in bringing the long struggle for a right to counsel to this point,” said Jeanette Zelhof, Executive Director, Mobilization for Justice (formerly MFY Legal Services), on behalf of LEAP.

Allison Nickerson, Executive Director, LiveOn NY, said “LiveOn NY is proud to be part of this historic victory as New York City leads the way in creating fairness for low income tenants facing eviction.  Given the complicated, highly technical nature of eviction proceedings, this right will afford tenants, particularly seniors, a more just opportunity to present their defenses.  Seniors deserve and will now have the chance to remain in their homes and part of their communities that they helped build over many years. We thank Council Members Levine and Gibson, Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito, and the entire Council for their leadership.”

“New York City tenants have long faced the threat of eviction alone and often at the mercy of deep-pocketed landlords who can afford the financial drain of housing court,” said U.S. Congressman Adriano Espaillat (NY-13). “The threat of eviction particularly hits low-income tenants and families the hardest and leaves far too many New Yorker’s stripped unfairly of one of life’s most basic necessities. I commend Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson for today’s announcement to ensure universal access to legal counsel for tenants facing eviction and for their commitment to our city’s progress.”

“By providing universal legal representation for tenants being forced out of their homes, this vital legislation puts an end to the vicious cycle that dooms low-income residents to eviction,” said Council Member Margaret S. Chin. “Access to affordable legal representation should be a fundamental principle of a more fair and equitable city. Residents who are facing eviction and are already struggling with financial or language barriers should not have to go to Housing Court on their own. As the first major municipality in the country to guarantee universal access to counsel for tenants with eviction cases, our City is setting a strong example for how our nation can lead the fight against displacement and homelessness. I thank Speaker Mark-Viverito and Council Member Levine for their commitment to protecting some of our most vulnerable residents.”

“This is a landmark day in our city’s history, where we come down firmly on the side of tenants,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez. “For far too long, tenants were left to fend for themselves against landlords using illegal means to force them out of their homes. Establishing this right to counsel in housing court will stem the tide of homelessness and give our city’s residents a fighting chance. I could not be prouder to support this legislation and the many lives it will change. I want to thank Council Member Levine, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the de Blasio administration for working so hard to get this done.”

“This is a triumphant win and will ensure some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers are given a fair opportunity to make their case. By passing the Right to Counsel, we’re recognizing that having a lawyer in NYC’s housing court can be the difference between keeping a stable home for your family or falling into homelessness,” said Council Member Brad Lander, Deputy Leader of Policy for the Council. “Thanks to Council Member Levine for working to ensure low-income tenants get the fair chance they deserve.”

“Low-income New Yorkers are one of the more vulnerable populations in the City, and in turn in need of added resources and assistance. Unlike in criminal court, tenants are not afforded free legal counsel in housing court, giving landlords, who almost always have legal representation, an advantage. Given the housing crisis in this City and the record high number of New Yorkers living in homeless shelters, it is our duty as legislators to give all New Yorkers a level playing field in housing court,” said Council Member Jumaane D. Williams.

“I am proud to support this important bill that again proves New York City to be our nation’s leader in fighting inequality for low-income residents. Statistics clearly show that tenants are more likely to come out ahead in housing court legal proceedings when they are able to make use of an attorney’s services. As our city struggles with a lack of affordable housing and high rates of homelessness, Right to Counsel will help keep more New Yorkers in their homes, save the City money, and preserve affordable housing. I thank Council Members Levine and Gibson and all of the advocacy organizations for their diligent work on this significant piece of legislation,” said Council Member Mark Treyger.

“I am proud to join my colleagues as a sponsor of Intro 214, a bill that guarantees the right to counsel of tenants who are facing eviction. As elected officials, it is our moral obligation to do what is necessary to protect the interests of hard working men and women who are unable to afford legal representation during housing disputes. This important bill will put the city of New York at the forefront tenant protection, while allowing our residents to secure a better future for themselves and their families,” said Council Member Eugene.

“No tenant, along with any family members, should find themselves evicted and homeless simply because they did not understand what actions needed to be taken in response to an eviction proceeding.  Moreover, low income tenants who cannot afford counsel will now be represented in these eviction matters.  This levelling of the playing field in housing court is just and is long overdue,” said Council Member Koslowitz.

"For too long, low-income New Yorkers have lost their homes to unscrupulous landlords who sought to take advantage of them. Being able to afford legal representation should not be a prerequisite to keeping your home. With the passage of Intro. 214-B today, a new path has been charted for tenants who need legal representation in housing court. I am excited for the impact this legislation will have not only for my constituents, but for people across New York City, and eventually for those in other cities, as well," said Council Member Cornegy.

“Together, we are standing in support of New Yorkers at risk of losing stability, their community ties, and their very homes,” said Council Member Stephen Levin. “For far too long, the scales have been tipped against New York families facing eviction through the unfamiliar and unforgiving legal system. With this legislation, these families will have a fighting chance to stay in their homes. That’s why this is so important. I applaud Council Member Levine and my Progressive Caucus colleagues on spearheading this instrumental protection for New Yorkers at their most vulnerable.”

“Providing civil legal services to tenants not only prevents coercion and abuse, but it saves money, as well. When tenants are unsuccessful in our complex legal system—or simply give up out of frustration—their unmet legal needs invariably take a toll on local government and on the taxpayers, as evidenced by the record numbers of people housed in our city’s shelter system. The long-term costs of unrepresented individuals in our legal system touch all aspects of a community,” said Council Member Debi Rose.

"The Right to Counsel is a big step toward balancing the scales of justice and gives tenants a fighting chance in housing court," said Council Member Ben Kallos. "For decades landlords have had an advantage because they could afford attorneys when trying to evict tenants. Access to legal representation is a constitutional right, not a privilege only for the well-to do. I am proud to stand behind this bill that will keep many families who would have otherwise been evicted off the streets and out of our shelter system. Thank you to Council Member Levine for his tireless commitment to getting this legislation passed by the City Council.”

“No tenant should be threatened with the loss of her home and then forced to face housing court alone,” said NYC Council Member Rafael Espinal. “I am proud NYC is taking this wise step to support our most vulnerable New Yorkers in their greatest time of need and keep families in their homes. Congratulations to Mayor de Blasio, my colleagues and tenants all over our city!”

“Currently, 90% of landlords have lawyers in housing court, while 70% of tenants do not. Housing court is hardly fair when only one side has legal representation. By investing in lawyers for tenants, we can help keep New Yorkers in their homes, and ensure that this disturbing imbalance finally comes to an end. Intro 214, the Right to Counsel, is a truly historic step in the effort to protect New York City tenants, safeguarding them from unjust and unreasonable evictions and taking on one of the leading causes of homelessness in the city. I salute Council Member Mark D. Levine for leading the charge on this critical issue,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal.

"I hail the passage of this law that will do much to prevent homelessness in our city," said NYC Council Member Daniel Dromm. "Housing insecurity is a real and pressing concern for so many New Yorkers. Establishing the right to counsel for low-income tenants will help level the playing field for families who often find themselves with few legal resources in housing court.  Because access to housing is a human right, I will continue to work alongside Council Member Levine and other colleagues to empower tenants who find themselves subject to eviction."

“I’m proud to be a sponsor of this groundbreaking legislation,” said Council Member Andrew Cohen. “Everyone should have access to counsel when it comes to something as important as a roof over their heard, regardless of their income. This will help tenants all over the city who may be facing an unfair eviction or not have all the information on what they’re entitled to.  This legislation gives all New Yorkers the legal resources necessary to fight for their home.”

Council Member Peter Koo stated, “This is common sense legislation that is a necessity if we are to even begin to address the homeless crisis in New York City. Quite simply, there are just too many tenants getting evicted in New York City without the benefit of legal counsel. The Right to Counsel puts tenants on even footing with landlords, and I’d like to thank Council Member Levine, my colleagues in the City Council, and all of the advocates for spearheading this important effort.”

"As a city grappling with gentrification and homelessness, it is paramount that we provide tenants facing eviction with vital resources such as the right to counsel to remain in their homes. Intro 214 is groundbreaking legislation that could help curtail the displacement of everyday New Yorkers while preserving our socioeconomic diversity," said Council Member Laurie A. Cumbo.