The number of tenants in the Bronx facing eviction without an attorney in housing court has increased more than 900% in less than a month, according to court officials, after a legal service provider said it did not have enough lawyers to meet the demand.
The increase comes as a city program that provides free legal services for low-income New Yorkers grapples with a shortage of lawyers and a slate of eviction cases that are finally moving forward more than two months after a statewide moratorium was lifted.
As of Monday, a total of 188 eviction cases proceeded in Bronx Housing Court in which tenants who may have been eligible for free legal representation provided by the city did so without attorneys. This is up from 18 at the beginning of the month, according to Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration who said the Bronx was the only borough affected in the city so far.
“It's truly alarming,” said Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Practice of the Legal Aid Society, one of two major providers of legal services to tenants facing evictions. “I anticipate that it's just going to get worse.”
New York City housing courts currently have a backlog of more than 200,000 eviction cases, according to court data. Thousands of new cases have been brought by landlords since the moratorium ended on Jan. 15.
In the Bronx, an estimated 92,000 renter households, or 23% of total households in the borough, owe more than $350 million in rent, according to Surgo Ventures, a research group focused on data science.
Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC, an organization that contracts with the city to provide legal representation, said his group does not have enough lawyers to meet the demand in Bronx Housing Court. Rasmussen said it currently has enough lawyers to staff two of the four courtrooms in the Bronx, where judges refer cases to legal service providers.
The city’s Right To Counsel law guarantees legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction whose income is 200% less than the federal poverty guideline, the equivalent of $55,500 for a family of four.
In February, a coalition that advocates for the fair and just implementation of the law wrote to New York State’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and requested that eviction cases throughout the city be postponed until tenants are paired with lawyers. They said that pushing eviction cases through the court system when tenants are not represented by lawyers undermines the program.
“It'll be the gutting of Right to Counsel in New York City,” Holder said.
Officials from the city’s Office of Civil Justice tasked with implementing the Right to Counsel law met with court officials and legal services providers in the last two weeks and drafted a list of proposals to better manage caseloads, including asking housing court judges to postpone cases for four to six weeks, according to legal service providers. Although this measure does not reduce the volume of cases, it gives legal service providers time to deal with the caseloads.
“It is under discussion here,” said Chalfen, the court spokesman.
Mayor Eric Adams’ office and the Department of Social Services, which oversees the Office of Civil Justice, did not respond to requests for comment.
Janaye Betts, who owes her landlord about $7,500 in back rent, said she wishes she would have been told about the Right to Counsel law when she showed up in Bronx Housing Court on March 2. The 32-year-old said she fell behind on rent after she lost her job as a barista and a second job working at Krispy Kreme, but was not offered a city-funded attorney.
“They didn't even bring up about seeing if I was eligible," Betts said. "They were just pretty much like, 'Well, go on this website and see if you can find something.'"
Rassmussen and Holder said that even if all the proposals recommended by the Office of Civil Justice were implemented, they would help alleviate the crisis, but not resolve it.
“The providers were unanimous, following that meeting, that these things, if done by OCA [Office of Court Administration], would only make a marginal, at best, difference, in the overall volume of cases coming our way,” Rassmussen said.
What would help, said Rassmussen and Holder, is for judges to put an upper limit on the number of cases they bring into their docket at any given time.
“All of those proposals need to also be married with a cap on the number of cases being calendared,” said Holder. “It's just that simple.”