A Roof Over Their Heads
On September 27, NYLAG’s President and Attorney-in-Charge, Beth Goldman, joined a number of advocates, tenants, academics and legal services providers in testifying before the New York City Council Committee on Courts & Legal Services. She was there to speak in support of Intro 214-A, legislation that would make New York City the first city in the country to create a right to legal representation for low-income New Yorkers in eviction, ejectment and foreclosure proceedings.
Earlier in the day, a throng of supporters crowded the steps of City Hall holding up signs and chanting “Pass Intro 214.” The legislation has brought together a broad coalition that includes labor unions, the New York City Bar Association, and all 59 Community Boards throughout New York. Introduced in March 2014 by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, the bill has been sponsored by 41 members of the City Council, the Public Advocate and City Comptroller, and endorsed by the New York Times Editorial Board.
The bill would benefit New Yorkers whose income is 200% of the federal poverty line or below, meaning households earning less than $50,000 a year for a family of four. If signed into law, nearly 130,000 tenants – about 80% of tenants in New York City Housing Court – would qualify for the right to counsel.
In her testimony Goldman commended the Council for its recent increases in funding committed to legal services, which has significantly increased the number of tenants represented. But it remains the case, according to a recent report from the NYC Office of Civil Justice, that almost 75% of tenants facing eviction and 40% of homeowners facing foreclosure are still unrepresented.
“While the recent increased funding for housing counsel has been highly impactful, the imbalance remains. Nor can we ignore the possibility that funding can be decreased or eliminated as priorities and political winds shift,” said Goldman. “That is why establishing a right to legal counsel for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction and foreclosure is so important: it would ensure that New Yorkers facing the risk of losing a fundamental necessity of life – their housing — would have meaningful access to justice.”
Low-income New Yorkers at risk of eviction and foreclosure face an enormous justice gap. There is a drastic imbalance in the level of legal representation between landlords and tenants in eviction proceedings, as well as between banks and homeowners in foreclosure actions. These challenges are compounded for low-income elderly, disabled and non-English speaking clients.
Every day, attorneys with NYLAG Tenants’ Rights Unit meet tenants who have unwittingly waived crucial rights and defenses in their eviction proceedings because they were unrepresented and unware of their legal options and remedies. New York City housing law is a vast and complex subject and even the most sophisticated tenants simply don’t know all of their rights. Landlords, on the other hand, are almost always represented by an attorney. This power imbalance results in tragic outcomes every day, including tenants who sign agreements to move out of an apartment they have a legal right to remain in; who agree to pay large sums for back rent or fees they don’t legally owe; who are intentionally misled to believe that their landlord’s attorney was actually their attorney or a neutral court attorney and, as a result, enter into an unfair agreement that is not in their best interest; who don’t know how to undo a default judgment that was entered against them because their landlord failed to serve them with court documents; and who agree to move out of their life-long homes after the death of a spouse or parent because they do not understand their succession rights.
Through our Foreclosure Prevention Project, NYLAG regularly meets homeowners who have been victims of mortgage scams, have already been foreclosed upon, or are on the verge of losing their homes to foreclosure. Often they were unaware that an action had been commenced against them until it was too late, cannot determine who owns their mortgage and therefore whether the person who sued them has standing to do so, and cannot determine whether the amount that is claimed is what they actually owe. Homeowners are often unaware of what modification and other workout options are available to them.
“The lack of affordable housing in New York City has become a true humanitarian crisis, displacing families that have lived here for decades and causing many to enter the cycle of homelessness,” said Goldman in her testimony. “One of the most effective ways for the City to address homelessness and maintain affordable housing is to provide all low-income tenants and homeowners facing eviction with access to legal services.”