Landmark Legislation Guarantees Free Legal Representation for Low-Income New Yorkers in Housing Court

New York, NY – Today Mayor Bill de Blasio will sign Intro 214-B, a landmark bill passed on July 20th by the New York City Council and sponsored by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa L. Gibson, that requires the 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 Members Levine and Gibson 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 more than 400,000 New Yorkers each year, according to a report by commissioned by the New York City Bar Association.

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 percent, 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 LeVera Sutton 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. Sutton “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. The Council’s passage of this bill marked a new beginning of a new era for tenants in New York City, and I’m proud to stand with the Mayor as he signs this landmark legislation,” 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 a historic step forward in the fight against unlawful evictions.”

“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, the ground-breaking legislation that will curb the homelessness epidemic and end the cycle of eviction we’ve fought tirelessly to create will become New York City law,” said CityCouncil Member Vanessa L. Gibson, co-sponsor of Intro 214. “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 Mayor Bill de Blasio, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, my partner in this endeavor Council Member Mark Levine, the many elected officials, advocates, tenant leaders, clergy leaders, and civil legal service providers who joined me in securing a right to counsel for New Yorkers and bringing equity and justice to our housing court system.”

“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.

“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 new system laid out by this incredibly important ‘Right to Counsel’ legislation,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “I want to thank Mayor Bill de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for their strong commitment to tenants’ rights, and for leading us to where we are today. I especially want to thank two of my colleagues from the City Council, Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, for their tireless advocacy on behalf of this important piece of legislation. Together, we have struck a blow for a more fair and just housing court, and that is something we can all be proud of.”

“We’re facing affordability and housing challenges like never before, and this bill demonstrates that New York City believes in fairness not just in words, but in action. For decades in housing court, the deck has felt stacked against tenants. We know it’s hard to have justice when only one side is heard – and that’s why ‘Right to Counsel’ is such a game-changer. It signals to the world that New York City stands up for everyday families,” Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said. “I congratulate the Mayor, Council Members Levine and Gibson, and all the advocates who fought tirelessly to make this law a reality.”

“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.