A New York City council member is urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to help reduce the volume of eviction cases in state housing courts to prevent what he described as the possible “collapse” of a city program that provides free legal services to low-income renters facing eviction.
On Monday, more than two months after a pandemic-era moratorium on evictions was lifted, three organizations that contract with the city to provide free legal representation said they cannot take on new eviction cases in Queens and Brooklyn in April due to continuing staffing shortages and heavy caseloads. In Bronx Housing Court, about 475 cases have proceeded without access to attorneys since March, according to the Office of Court Administration (OCA).
Councilmember Shaun Abreu, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on State and Federal Legislation, said judges have been unwilling to postpone some eviction cases until city-paid lawyers can be provided to litigants, as has been requested by lawyers and advocates. He called on Gov. Hochul to issue an executive order directing judges to slow the pace of eviction cases moving through the courts.
“Essentially it could lead to the collapse of Rights to Counsel as we know it,” Abreu said in an interview on Monday. “And so what we're calling is on OCA to slow the pace at which cases are coming before judges, and the governor, with the stroke of a pen, can do that through an executive order.”
And so what we're calling is on OCA to slow the pace at which cases are coming before judges, and the governor, with the stroke of a pen, can do that through an executive order.
The Right to Counsel law guarantees legal representation for New Yorkers facing eviction who earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four that is less than $55,000 a year.
The City Council established the law in 2017. It was initially introduced into a handful of city zip codes and became available to all eligible New Yorkers last year.
Abreu said he had two conversations with officials in Hochul’s office last week and this week he plans to put pressure on the governor to take action.
“We need to continue to get together with advocates and legislators and the speaker's office to send a unifying message to Albany that this is within your wheelhouse, within your power, and we can get this done with a stroke of a pen,” Abreu said.
Avi Small, a spokesman for Hochul, did not comment on whether the governor would step in and direct judges, who are state employees, to reduce the number of eviction cases they put on their calendars.
“We will continue to work closely with the legislature and members of the advocacy community to protect vulnerable New Yorkers and keep tenants in their homes,” Small said in an email sent Monday.
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’ office and a spokeswoman for the Office of Civil Justice - the entity charged with implementing the Right to Counsel program -did not provide comment on the difficulties that the program is now facing.
Before New York’s statewide moratorium on evictions expired on January 15th, lawyers in New York City housing courts and tenant advocates had voiced their concerns with city officials, including those in the Office of Civil Justice. Like other industries contending with a staffing crunch, the same is happening in the legal community, according to Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society, and Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC.
Lawyers leave for better jobs, switch jobs within the same organization, or decide they don’t want to return to the office.
After the problem first began to affect litigants in the Bronx in March, Rasmussen said his group will not take on new cases in Brooklyn Housing Court in April because four experienced lawyers recently quit, leaving behind about 160 to 170 cases that had to be reassigned to the remaining 21 attorneys, who have less experience. In Queens Housing Court, he said lawyers with Legal Services NYC will accept about 50% fewer cases this month.
“They all have huge caseloads. Our supervisors, who should not have significant caseloads at all, also have huge caseloads,” Rasmussen said. “And so we just cannot continue to take cases at the rate that they were being sent to us. So, we have to cut back.”
Starting Tuesday, The Legal Aid Society, for the first time, said its lawyers cannot accept new eviction cases in Queens Housing Court due to what it said was a confluence of factors, including new cases being added to a backlog in the hundreds of thousands.
“It's all of those factors together that create this problem that is only beginning to creep into the other boroughs,” Holder said.
Beth Goldman, president and attorney-in-charge at New York Legal Assistance Group, which also has contracts with the city, said lawyers in her organization are also overwhelmed. She said they, too, will not take on new eviction cases in Queens Housing Court in April and that their lack of capacity is likely to impact cases in other boroughs.
“Brooklyn is the one that's really an emergency,” Goldman said. “So we're looking at that very closely right now.”