New York City passed legislation on August 11 guaranteeing low income renters the right to representation during eviction proceedings, the first such law in the U.S. Advocates are celebrating the success of a three-year campaign coordinated by the Right to Council NYC Coalition, which included efforts by the Coalition for the Homeless and Tenants & Neighbors, both NLIHC state partners. The law, which will be phased in over five years, will provide legal services to residents who make less than 200% of the federal poverty line and are facing eviction. The protections are expected to reduce the number of tenants brought to housing court and the number of evictions.
Following the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, all defendants are guaranteed the right to counsel in felony cases, regardless of their ability to pay. The same right does not extend to civil court, where housing and eviction cases are heard. As a result, across the country, while 90% of landlords are represented by attorneys in housing court, 90% of residents have no legal counsel. Without representation, tenants are significantly more likely to face eviction. In a randomized study that the Legal Aid Society prepared in advance of the New York City bill, low income tenants provided with counsel in eviction hearings were 77% less likely to be evicted than those without representation.
The repercussions of a lack of counsel are wide-reaching. Households experiencing eviction are more likely to experience insecurity in their jobs, education, and support structure. With an eviction on its record, a family is less likely to find a new home and more likely to become homeless. Across the city, the eviction of tenants in rent-stabilized apartments can lead to deregulation of those units, reducing New York’s stock of affordable homes. Rampant eviction pushes households into shelters, where the average family stay is over a year, costing the city $45,000. Advocates expect that by providing counsel to tenants, New York City will reverse this trend, promoting household stability and economic growth while reducing the city’s shelter expenses.
Members of the Bronx-based tenants’ rights group Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) began the campaign for housing court reform in 2012. In 2014, City Councilmembers Vanessa Gibson and Mark Levine introduced legislation to fund legal representation for low income tenants in housing court. CASA members rallied around the bill and established the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition to grow grassroots support for the right to legal representation as an issue of justice, equity, and human rights. Coalition members included tenants, advocates, and legal service provides united to seek justice for tenants and a more affordable city. Following three years of advocacy, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed Councilmember Levine’s bill, making New York the first jurisdiction in the country to guarantee basic legal protection for low income residents facing eviction.
Advocates and city officials expect that implementing the law, which will be phased in over five years, will cost approximately $200 million each year when fully implemented, as the city will need to provide counsel for around 120,000 housing cases annually, but by lowering the number of homeless families needing to stay in shelters, the city will save $300 million each year, according to a study by an independent consulting firm. The New York City program will therefore pay for itself while increasing household and neighborhood stability.
"New York City guaranteeing low-income tenants legal representation is an essential step towards tenants achieving the justice they deserve in New York City,” said Katie Goldstein, senior organizer at Tenants & Neighbors. “Housing court has long been a site of immense injustice, and providing tenants with legal support is a key protection that will help to keep thousands of New Yorkers who are at-risk of eviction in their homes."
For more information, contact Katie Goldstein at: firstname.lastname@example.org