Nearly two months after New York’s statewide moratorium on evictions expired, a shortage of attorneys and a housing court system determined to clear its backlog of cases are leaving some New Yorkers to face eviction from their homes without legal representation — undermining a city program that provides free legal services, according to attorneys and tenant advocates.
The staffing crunch came to a head in Bronx Housing Court last week.
On March 1, tenants involved in 18 new eviction cases were forced to proceed without access to city-funded attorneys, according to Lucien Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration. Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC, an organization that contracts with the city to provide representation, said that was because it did not have the capacity to take on new cases.
“The combination of the pandemic, hiring challenges that occurred during the pandemic, the great attrition, loss of staff that has occurred in other industries has also hit us hard,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen said his organization used to have 54 lawyers working in the Bronx Right to Counsel program and now there are only 39.
Lawyers in New York City housing courts have voiced their concerns with the courts as judges bring new eviction cases on line and clear backlogs that piled up when the pandemic temporarily halted evictions.
In February, a coalition that advocates for the fair and just implementation of the city’s Right to Counsel law, which provides low-income tenants free legal representation when facing eviction, wrote to New York State’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to sound the alarm.
The letter, sent by the advocacy group Right to Counsel NYC and shared with Gothamist, said judges who presided over courtrooms where indigent clients are assigned a lawyer used to hear one case every 30 minutes. Now, the group said judges are hearing two cases every 15 minutes.
“Some organizations have declined to do intakes simply because they have no attorneys to whom they can assign the cases,” according to the letter dated February 16. “Across organizations, attorneys are taking on unprecedented caseloads; some attorneys have upwards of 60-80 cases.”
The New York City Council established the Right to Counsel law in 2017. The law, which was being phased in by zip codes, became available to all eligible New Yorkers last year. A family of four that earns less than $55,000 a year, for example, would qualify for free legal representation if they face eviction.
Before the law went into effect, 95% of landlords in eviction cases were represented by a lawyer, but only 1% of tenants had legal counsel.
Judge DiFiore asked Supervising Judge Jean T. Schneider, head of the city’s housing courts, to respond to advocates’ concerns. In an email Schneider sent to the coalition, which was later shared with Gothamist, the judge said workload and capacity are issues between legal services providers and the city’s Office of Civil Justice — the entity charged with implementing the Right to Counsel program.
“The Court will not reduce its calendars at a provider’s request,” Schneider wrote.
Neha Sharma, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Social Services, which oversees the Office of Civil Justice, declined to answer questions submitted by Gothamist. In a short statement, she said the agency will evaluate and work to address any problems that might impact any New Yorkers entitled to free legal counsel.
Like other industries, the legal community is facing a staffing shortage as attorneys quit, found work elsewhere or switched jobs, said Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Practice at the Legal Aid Society. Those cases must be distributed to the remaining staff, who are also working on old eviction cases as well as taking on new ones.
So far, Holder said the Legal Aid Society, which also provides free legal services under the city’s program, has not turned down new eviction cases. However, if judges in housing courts don’t postpone some cases or slow down the volume of new cases, she said all legal services providers will face the same problem.
“The concern is that we all are, to varying degrees, in all five boroughs, going to hit a wall at some point,” Holder said.
Rasmussen said lawyers from his organization working in Bronx courts will accept roughly 25 new eviction cases a week until additional attorneys are hired.
“And we're continuing to assess our capacity, day by day,” he said.
Former City Councilmember Mark Levine, one of the main sponsors of the legislation that established the Right to Counsel program, implored housing court judges to step in and help find solutions.
“The courts have the power to fix it by slowing down the pace of cases so that it doesn't overstretch legal aid providers,” said Levine, who is now Manhattan Borough President.
Editor's note: This article was updated after the Department of Social Services responded after publication.