Report Shows Universal Access to Counsel Reduced Non-Answer Rates and Subsequent Default Judgments in New York Eviction Cases

A new report from the NYU Furman Center, “Half the Battle is Just Showing Up: Non-Answers and Default Judgments in Non-Payment Eviction Cases across New York State,” documents the frequency of tenant non-answer and default judgments entered in non-payment eviction cases in New York from 2016 to 2022. Tenants did not answer in more than half of all eviction cases originating from non-payment of rent. Eviction cases with non-answers are more likely to result in default judgments than cases with answers and are more likely to lead to evictions. The authors of the report find early evidence that the Universal Access to Counsel program in New York City may reduce the frequency of non-answers, as well as the likelihood that a non-answer leads to a default judgment.

The report focuses on understanding the frequency of tenant non-answers and default judgments in non-payment eviction filings because many eviction diversion efforts rely on in-court services that tenants may not have access to if they do not answer and appear. The analysis uses non-payment eviction filing data from 2016 through the first half of 2022 filed in the New York State Office of Court Administration. The authors also examine patterns in answer and default judgment rates over time and by jurisdiction (inside New York City or outside). Finally, the authors assess whether answer rates are associated with any jurisdictional demographic characteristics. Filings from all city courts in New York State as well as county courts in Nassau and Suffolk counties – where 83% of renter households in New York State live – were captured.

On average, 54% of non-payment cases between 2016 and 2022 went unanswered by tenants in New York, with 20% of these cases resulting in a default judgment. In the remaining 46% of cases where an answer was initially entered by the tenant, 11% resulted in a default judgment because the tenant did not appear in court. In the pre-pandemic years (2016-2019), 50% of cases were not answered in New York City and 60% in the other jurisdictions in the state. However, during the pandemic, this dynamic was reversed. During the pandemic, New York City non-answer rates rose, reaching almost 65% in 2021 before falling to around 57% in 2022.  In jurisdictions outside of New York City, the non-answer rate fell and remains lower than the pre-pandemic average. A closer examination of answer rates in jurisdictions outside of New York City reveals wide variation: 20 of the 64 jurisdictions had very high non-answer rates (over 80%), while 35 of the jurisdictions had very low non-answer rates (below 10%). The divergence in answer rates may be attributed to the local policies and practices adopted by localities in response to the pandemic. The economic and demographic characteristics of the jurisdictions did not have a clear impact on these answer rates.

The authors find evidence suggesting that expansion of legal counsel in New York City has led to a decrease in non-answers and default judgments in cases of non-answers. Universal Access to Counsel, which guarantees legal representation for all tenants with low incomes in New York City, began in 2017 and was introduced in stages to different ZIP codes until 2020, when the program became available in all ZIP codes of the city. During the roll out period, cases in ZIP codes that had Universal Access to Counsel were more likely to have an answer as compared to cases in ZIP codes without the program. Similarly, of the cases that were unanswered, default judgments were less likely in ZIP codes that implemented Universal Access to Counsel. The authors posit that this could be due to the fact that landlords were more willing to engage in negotiations with tenants and settle informally outside of court when they anticipated that tenants would have legal representation. The authors note that Universal Access to Counsel is not related to the probability of a default judgment for cases where the tenant has entered an answer but has a default judgment entered against them for failure to appear.

The authors call for policy interventions that connect tenants to resources such as rental assistance and legal assistance to divert them from the eviction process. In cases where evictions do proceed in court, the authors highlight that more investigation is needed to identify what strategies are effective in increasing tenant answers and attendance.

Read the new report at: