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New City Council Bill Aims To Educate Low-Income Tenants About Right To Counsel Law

City Council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson announced new legislation to help inform low-income tenants about their right to a free attorney in housing court.
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City Council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson announced new legislation to help inform low-income tenants about their right to a free attorney in housing court. Elizabeth Kim/Gothamist

Two years following the passage of a landmark law which gave low-income tenants facing eviction the right to a free attorney, a new bill has been introduced in the City Council to mandate city funding to tenant organizing groups so they can educate people on their legal rights.

In 2017, New York became the first city in the nation to adopt the right-to-counsel law. But advocates say that most low-income tenants still do not know that they are entitled to a lawyer during eviction cases.

“It’s about making them aware and having them exercise this right,” said Lauren Springer, a tenant organizer in Queens who works with Catholic Migration Services, a nonprofit legal services provider.

The right-to-counsel law is currently being rolled out by zipcode. To date, 345,000 households in the city are covered. Citywide implementation is expected by 2022.

Prior to introducing the bill on Thursday, Council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson held a press conference where they were flanked by tenant organizing groups from across the city.

“We are in an arms race with unscrupulous landlords,” Levine said. “We need to up our game to fight back against these evolving tactics.”

Gibson described the bill, which would require the city's Office of Civil Justice to work with and fund organizers, as “taking the right-to-counsel law to the next level.”

The bill does not specify a funding amount. A spokesman for Levine said a budget could arise after City Council hearings. In 2018, as a result of the right-to-cousel law, the city spent $78 million in tenant legal services program. That amount is expected to ramp up each year until it reaches $155 million in 2022.

Until recently, the percentage of tenants with legal representation in eviction cases has been tiny — only 1 percent in 2013. But as a possible sign of the growing awareness of tenant rights, during the last quarter of 2018, 34% of tenants who appeared in eviction cases in Housing Court citywide had a lawyer, according to a 2018 Office of Civil Justice report. Of that total, 4% had received legal advice or other assistance through the city's tenant legal services programs.

Both council members also urged the City Council to pass a related bill they introduced last year known as Right to Counsel 2.0, which would significantly expand the number of low-income New Yorkers covered under the law. Currently, only tenants making below 200 percent of the federal poverty line — roughly $25,000 for a single individual and $50,000 for a family of four— qualify for free legal representation. The Right to Counsel 2.0 bill would double those income limits by increasing the income eligibility to 400 percent of the federal poverty line.

Evictions in New York City have been on the decline, a trend that the de Blasio administration has credited in part to the availability of free legal services required by the right-to-counsel law. In 2018, there were roughly 18,000 evictions by court marshals, a drop of 37 percent since 2013.

Two other cities, San Francisco and Newark, have recently passed their own right to counsel laws. The Cleveland City Council is currently considering such legislation.

New York’s law had been three decades in the making, according Larry Wood, the director of the organizing law project at Goddard Riverside, a community organization in the Upper West Side.

The push for the law stemmed from a critique that the city's housing court, where landlords are represented by a lawyer in 90 percent of cases, was serving as a de facto rent collection agency. “It was an eviction mill,” Wood said.

In 2012, Community Action for Safe Apartments, a Bronx-based tenants’ rights group, began campaigning to reform the Bronx Housing Court, culminating in a groundbreaking report that compiled a list of recommended improvements, including the right to counsel.

Because the city is being asked to provide greater funding, Wood said he expected there to be some debate over the new bill. But ultimately, he said, these measures are cost-effective for the city. “It keeps people out of the shelters and it saves affordable housing,” he said.

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