Legal Aid Urges Right to Counsel in Housing Court
Adriene Holder

The passage of a groundbreaking bill securing the right to counsel for any New York City resident facing the loss of their home would underscore “what our values are as a city,” and serve as an important example, Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice, told city lawmakers.

“Let’s do what’s right,” Holder said Monday at a City Council hearing, urging passage of the widely-supported bill that would provide counsel for low income tenants facing the loss of their home in eviction, ejectment or foreclosure proceedings. “This is a real indication of truly what our values are as a city, what we value, how we value each other and how we will remain a great beacon here in this country.”

If passed, Intro 214, would make New York City the country’s first jurisdiction to require legal representation for low-income tenants facing displacement from their homes.

As Holder noted in her testimony, “There cannot be any kind of justice in any kind of adversarial proceeding when one side has knowledgeable, expert counsel and the other side does not.”

Taylor James, a Staff Attorney in the Civil Practice’s Housing Help Program, also testified Monday on the need for Intro 214’s enactment.

Emphasizing the impact legal counsel can have, James told lawmakers about how she was now assisting a woman evicted from her apartment. The woman had previously signed a stipulation that, James said she would have never signed if she had been represented at the time.

“It’s very important we recognize the tremendous difference of having an attorney in Housing Court can make in a tenant’s battle to preserve their housing,” said James.

Like Holder and James, many other speakers called for the bill’s passage; apart from Legal Aid, the bill has support from a wide number of public officials, bar associations and other organizations. Tenants also spoke at the hearing on what it was like to face housing court proceedings on their own, with one tenant calling it a “nightmare.”

The New York Times
For Tenants Facing Eviction, New York May Guarantee a Lawyer
By Jessica Silver-Greenberg
September 26, 2016

Outside Housing Court in the Bronx, the line invariably winds down the block, snaking past the vendors at tables hawking cellphone plans and by a man selling moving boxes.

Inside, tenants clutching folders of documents, or lugging toddlers on their hips, stagger through the hallways.

On a recent Tuesday morning, the fear and confusion was palpable. Some tenants owed back rent, money they did not have. Two had already received eviction papers but said they had paid their rent, proffering copies of money orders and tattered receipts as proof to anyone who would stop to look.

In halting English, another man, a Rite Aid name tag pinned to his shirt, wandered around asking where he could find a lawyer.

Most likely, he was out of luck.

Despite $62 million set aside this fiscal year by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, to bolster legal help, more than 70 percent of low-income tenants in New York City still go without lawyers in Housing Court, according to a report published in June by the newly created Office of Civil Justice, part of the city’s Human Resources Administration.

With landlords almost always represented by lawyers, tenants are overmatched from the start, tenant advocates and city officials say. Across the city last year, there were nearly 22,000 evictions, with the greatest number in the Bronx.

On Monday, the City Council held a hearing on a bill that would make New York City the first jurisdiction in the country to guarantee lawyers for any low-income residents facing eviction. Under the measure, tenants who make below 200 percent of the federal poverty line would qualify. (For a single person, the cutoff would be $23,540; for a family of four, it would be $48,500.)

The bill, which has already garnered the support of an overwhelming majority of council members, is part of a broader effort gaining momentum across the country to create a right to counsel for people in high-stake legal cases like evictions and foreclosures.

“Housing Court is a weapon that unscrupulous landlords use to displace tenants,” Councilman Mark D. Levine, who along with Councilwoman Vanessa L. Gibson, a fellow Democrat, sponsored the legislation, said in an interview on Monday. He added the bill is “about leveling the playing field.”

Within legal circles, the effort is known as Civil Gideon, a reference to the 1963 Supreme Court case that established a right to counsel in criminal cases.

It is gaining traction in New York as the city grapples with an affordable housing crisis. The total stock of affordable housing is dwindling, according to many measures, while costs are rising. From 2000 to 2012, the number of apartments renting for $1,000 or less dropped by 400,000, according to an analysis by the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer.

“People are literally falling off a cliff fighting for necessities without a lawyer,” said Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, who has long argued that the poor should have a right to counsel in civil cases. “The playing field is uneven, lopsided because the tenant has no idea how to navigate the system.”

The bill has brought together a broad coalition that includes labor unions and the New York City Bar Association, as well as traditional tenant rights advocates. On the steps of City Hall on Monday, elected officials, including borough presidents from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, the city comptroller and the public advocate, gathered to register their support for the bill. A large crowd of tenants who turned out waved signs and chanted “legal aid.”

The mayor’s office has not taken a position on the pending legislation, but Steven Banks, the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, whose agency now coordinates the city’s legal initiatives to prevent eviction, noted the city had already “made an unprecedented commitment” to providing tenant legal services, referring to the money the city had set aside for tenant legal services. Mr. Banks said his office was “reviewing the impact of the proposed legislation.”

Providing legal representation to all low-income tenants would cost the city about $200 million a year, according to a March report by Stout Risius Ross, an independent advisory firm, for the bar association. But the report contended that the effort would save the city even more than that — over $300 million, annually — by keeping 5,237 families a year out of shelters, at a cost of $43,000 per family, along with other savings, such as through the preservation of rent-regulated affordable housing.

“The city can’t afford to not do this,” Mr. Lippman said.

In the last two years, the de Blasio administration has vastly increased financing for tenant legal services. Funding soared to nearly $62 million for this fiscal year, up from $6.4 million in 2013.

It seems to have made a difference, although not enough, some tenant advocates and city officials said.

Last year, evictions in New York City fell to their lowest level in a decade, court estimates show. Evictions dropped to 21,988 in 2015, an 18 percent decline from a year earlier.

While the numbers are heartening, lawmakers say, much more needs to be done.

In Housing Court, having a lawyer can mean the difference between losing a home and keeping it.

Leyla Martinez, a single mother who lives in the Bronx, knows that all too well. In August, after spending more than a year fighting on her own in court, she returned home to face her nightmare: She had been evicted from her apartment and locked out.

“I was terrified,” Ms. Martinez said.

Desperate, she asked anyone she could find for help and found her way to Kamilla Sjodin, a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center. Within days, Ms. Sjodin was able to get her and her children back into the apartment.

Her experience is borne out by the numbers. Once tenants have lawyers, their chances of getting evicted fall more than 75 percent, according to a study by the Legal Aid Society and the bar association.

Many tenants, daunted by navigating Housing Court, agree prematurely to deals in the hallways to give up their apartments, said Jessica Hurd, the assistant director at Housing Court Answers, a research and advocacy group that operates the information tables.

A couple of months ago, Ms. Hurd said, she met a tenant who was so petrified because he was months behind on his rent that he voluntarily left his $800-a-month apartment rather than fight the case.

Providing tenants with lawyers can make a difference in other ways. Legal services lawyers say that landlords often drop eviction cases entirely once they learn that a tenant is represented.

City officials and lawyers say few tenants understand their rights under the city’s rent stabilization law. They often do not know, for example, that they are typically entitled to a new lease when their current one expires, or that there are strict caps on how much their rent can increase.

Even when tenants are struggling with overdue rent, lawyers can help them stave off eviction. If the landlords have not made repairs, for example, some tenants might be entitled to a reduced rent bill.

Alvin Browne, who fought off an eviction from his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with the help of a lawyer a few years ago, said in an interview at the rally on Monday that going to Housing Court was like traveling to a country where everyone spoke a different language. “We didn’t even know the questions to ask,” Mr. Browne said.

New York Law Journal
Low-Income Tenants' Right to Counsel Closer to Realization
By Andrew Denney
September 26, 2016

Supporters are optimistic that a bill before the New York City Council to establish a right to counsel for low-income tenants in Housing Court, to which a clear majority of New York City Council members signed on as co-sponsors, may soon become law.

The bill, Int. 214-A, was proposed more than two years ago but was not brought to the full Council for a vote after some expressed concerns about costs.

Since then, a groundswell of support behind the concept has grown, and supporters have been emboldened by recent reports that more tenants appearing with counsel has coincided with decreases in eviction rates, and that representing indigent litigants in Housing Court may have a high return on investment by reducing the amount it spends on homeless shelters.

"We have just more real-world proof that this works," said City Councilman Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat, during a break from a nearly seven-hour hearing on the bill before the council's Committee on Courts and Legal Services at City Hall.

Levine and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat, introduced the bill, which now has 42 co-sponsors from the 51-member City Council as well as the support of Public Advocate Letitia James.

Levine said it was his hope that the bill could be brought before the full council before the end of the calendar year.

Among the more than 80 people testifying on the bill were borough presidents for Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx and former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who throughout his tenure as head of New York's judiciary was an outspoken advocate of increasing civil legal services for low-income families.

During his testimony, Lippman said that increased spending for civil legal services are "making it better" for the indigent. "But we're not close to where we want to be."

For decades, it was almost axiomatic in New York City's Housing Court that nearly all landlords would appear with counsel while the vast majority of tenants would not. A recent study by a court system task force found that, in 2013, 99 percent of tenants were unrepresented.

But the city and court system have significantly increased spending on legal services for low-income households, which has contributed to a reversal of that trend.

In its first report, the city's Office of Civil Justice found that, during a two-day study period in April, about 27 percent of tenants in 2,196 cases appeared in court with counsel.

Combined funding for civil legal services for New York City litigants from local, state and federal sources is projected to exceed $181 million in the current fiscal year, up from $138 million in fiscal 2012-13.

Through that time, evictions have decreased. In 2013, there were more than 132,000 warrants issued but, in 2015, the number fell to 111,666.

Steven Banks, commissioner of the city's Human Resources Administration, told the committee during testimony that the city's current shelter population is about 60,000 and that increased efforts to prevent tenants from eviction likely kept an additional 7,000 people from joining their ranks.

Also this year, advisory firm Stout Risius Ross completed a report on behalf of the New York City Bar Association's Pro Bono and Legal Services Committee stating that if the counsel is provided to all tenants in Housing Court who are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level—or $48,460 for a family of four—it would cost about $200 million annually but would bring a benefit of more than $300 million from spending less on shelters and preserving the city's affordable housing stock.

Andrew Scherer, policy director of New York Law School's Impact Center for Public Interest Law and author of "Residential Landlord-Tenant Law in New York," said that with the recent studies and broader support from groups throughout the city—including the endorsement of all 42 community boards in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx—he said the "picture is changing" with respect to support for a tenant's right to counsel.

"These things have a cascading effect," Scherer said.