Right to Counsel in Housing Court: the Time Has Come
For the last decade advocates for the poor have been urging New York City to grant low-income tenants the right to an attorney in housing court. Now, at long last, it looks like it just might happen.
A majority of the City Council, led by Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, are supporting a bill that would guarantee legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction. The bill has the strong backing of housing advocates, community leaders and legal services providers, as well as the private bar – and is well timed given Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s outspoken support for more affordable housing and Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious ten-year housing plan. If it passes, New York City will become the first municipality in the US to level the playing field between landlord and tenant in eviction proceedings.
Housing court is not a good place to be without a lawyer. New York’s landlord/tenant laws are complicated, and the courts themselves are intimidating, confusing and chaotic. The vast majority of people who wind up in eviction proceedings are poor – most often the elderly, single mothers, immigrants and minorities. They have few resources, and certainly cannot pay for an attorney. And while they technically qualify for free legal services, the available providers can reach only a fraction of those eligible for services. Legal needs studies show that between 70 and 90 percent of litigants appear in court without a lawyer. The vast majority of landlords, on the other hand, are represented by seasoned attorneys who know the law and understand very well how the court system works.
Landlords who rent to low-income tenants frequently use this drastic imbalance in access to counsel to their advantage. Nonprofit housing attorneys see tenants every day who have no idea what their rights are, or are afraid to assert them before landlords who bully and threaten them, and browbeat them into signing unfair settlements that obligate them to pay money they actually do not owe. Families who are evicted are given little or no time to find alternate housing, forcing them to enter the shelter system.
The human toll of eviction and homelessness is profound: poor health, poor nutrition and food instability, depression and stress, increased incidences of domestic violence, inconsistent schooling for children, and missed work days and unemployment. But the City and its diverse communities also suffer. Eviction chips away at our already unacceptable level of affordable housing, since a landlord can legally raise the rent by a minimum of 20% in rent stabilized buildings following an eviction. Neighborhoods that were once affordable quickly become gentrified, while low-income and minority residents are pushed out of their communities, and sometimes out of New York City altogether.
This grim picture looks very different when the tenant has a lawyer. With substantive advocacy, the likelihood of eviction drops dramatically. Numerous studies show that tenants represented by counsel default less often, receive better settlements, and win more often at trial. Even when an eviction does happen, experienced attorneys can help families on the brink of homelessness stabilize their situation by taking advantage of available subsidies or “one-shot” assistance programs to cover arrears, and by having judgments vacated so that their credit scores do not suffer. In 2013, for example, NYLAG housing attorneys helped approximately 96% of their clients avoid the shelter system – they may not have always kept their apartments, but our attorneys were able to find other solutions or buy them the time they needed to relocate.
The benefit of adequate representation in housing court goes beyond stabilizing and improving the lives of poor families – it saves all of us money in the long run. A recent article in the New York Times reported on a number of efforts underway across the country to track the economic impact of equal representation. In one example, a Boston Bar Association pilot found that for every one dollar spent on legal services, two to three dollars were saved by reductions in municipal expenses associated with eviction, including the cost of shelter, health care, and increases in public benefits.
The housing crisis in New York City is a human rights crisis. Every person has a fundamental right to decent, affordable housing. The City has an obligation to guarantee that all people, regardless of income, can exercise that right. I urge the City Council, and ultimately the Mayor, to codify the right to counsel in housing court as early as possible in the New Year. In the interim, we should institute a moratorium on evictions: New Yorkers’ fundamental right to live in security, peace, and dignity must not be delayed.
The time has come. New York’s homeless population is growing at a rate higher than the nation as a whole, while our supply of affordable housing continues to dwindle. The need has never been greater – but neither has the opportunity we have to close the justice gap, save taxpayer dollars, and make a smart investment in the future of our city.
Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge