Politico: De Blasio, Mark-Viverito announce right to counsel initiative
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2017

The Legal Aid Society’s Attorney-in-Chief Seymour W. James Jr. was quoted in POLITICO New York this afternoon responding to Mayor de Blasio’s and City Council Speaker Mark Viverito’s announcement about proposed legislation that would provide universal legal representation for low-income New Yorkers in housing court.




Politico
De Blasio, Mark-Viverito announce right to counsel initiative
By Gloria Pazmino
February 12, 2017

Tenants facing eviction proceedings in New York City Housing Court will have free universal access to legal services under a new $93 million city allocation announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on Sunday.

The funding would be phased in over the next five years, making New York City the biggest city in the country to offer universal access including free legal advice to all tenants in housing court and full legal representation for low-income tenants. The city estimates at least 400,000 people would be served by the program every year when it’s fully implemented.

De Blasio and Mark-Viverito made the announcement at an affordable housing rally in the Upper West Side. As de Blasio enters his re-election campaign, the move could help to appease critics that his affordable housing plan is not moving fast enough, specifically those who say the city has not gone far enough to protect affordable housing.

"To anyone being forced out of their home or neighborhood, we are fighting for you," de Blasio said Sunday. "This is still your city.”

The City Council is expected to draw up legislation to write the program and funding into law.

The new funding would be in addition to the city’s current $62 million per year allocation to expand legal services for tenants, which first launched in 2014. City officials said the funding will be phased in over the next five years, beginning with $15 million in Fiscal Year 2018, and reaching $93 million by 2022.

Free legal representation in court would be available to New Yorkers whose household income is below $50,000 — 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four. Legal counseling would be available to those who make more money.

As POLITICO New York first reported, the Council, at the direction of Council members Mark Levine, and Vanessa Gibson, has been leading the charge for right to counsel for the past two years. Although Levine’s bill was debated publicly, it never got a vote as the administration negotiated over how to cover the proposal's costs.

“This is an issue the City Council has worked hard on — our Council members have met with constituents to better understand some of the struggles they are facing, we held a hearing to navigate solutions and we’ve also increased funding for housing affordability,” Mark-Viverito said.

Levine, who stood beside de Blasio at Sunday’s rally, said the city’s new funding is the beginning of a “new era” for tenants in housing court.

“No longer will low-income New Yorkers have to face the life-altering threat of an eviction alone,” Levine said.

Although his bill was not passed, the Council has earmarked nearly $100 million for anti-eviction services and created a new office of the Civil Justice Coordinator to oversee the programs.

Supporters of right to counsel say providing legal assistance will go a long way in preventing rising rates of homelessness and the loss of affordable housing. Supporters have also said the city spends more money placing evicted families into the shelter system than it would paying for a lawyer.

The Right to Counsel Coalition, which has also pushed for the initiative, has estimated that providing lawyers could save the city up to $320 million every year by decreasing the amount of money the city spends to place evicted tenants and families into the shelter system.

Currently, 90 percent of landlords typically have legal representation while about 75 percent of tenants face the eviction process without any legal guidance. Seymour James Jr., attorney-in-chief at the Legal Aide Society described that disparity as “the unfortunate reality that plays out almost every day in housing courts around the city.”

City officials estimated the city’s already funded legal service programs have helped more than 34,000 households and at least 100,000 New Yorkers in court cases.

The right to counsel move did draw some quick opposition Sunday. Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, said in a statement that while his organization thinks the proposal is "a good concept," it "places the burden of rectifying de Blasio’s miserable failure to address the homeless crisis squarely on the shoulders of the largest providers of affordable housing – landlords of 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in the five boroughs."