Right to Counsel Expands in New Orleans and New York City

The New Orleans City Council approved a 2022 operating budget that fully funds the right to counsel for tenants in eviction court. The budget, which passed city council on December 1, contains $2 million for tenant legal representation, quadrupling the initial amount of $500,000 that Mayor LaToya Cantrell included in her proposed budget. New York’s right-to-counsel initiative also reached a significant milestone this month, as Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 100% of tenants with scheduled eviction cases had access to legal services in 2020, and 71% of tenants had full attorney representation.

The $2 million for tenant legal representation in New Orleans aligns with advocates’ request, as full implementation of right to counsel in the city is expected to cost $2 million in its first year. Right to counsel is anticipated to save money for the city: multiple analyses by Stout find that jurisdictions can expect to save at least $3 for every $1 invested in right to counsel.

“Making sure anyone at risk of losing their home in eviction court has access to an attorney is a matter of basic fairness and there is no more important time to do that than now,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “We’re incredibly proud that New Orleans will now join the ranks of dozens of other cities and states who are leveling the playing field, decreasing evictions and homelessness, and stabilizing families. The next step will be advocating for passage of a right-to-counsel ordinance to create formal rules for the program and make it permanent.” 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout intensified low-income renters’ housing hardships, New Orleans saw higher-than-average eviction rates. In 2017, 5.2% of households in New Orleans experienced an eviction—more than double the national average rate of 2.8%. Only 6.1% of New Orleans renters who appeared in eviction court between September 1, 2019 and March 12, 2020 had legal representation, according to research from the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI). Legal representation significantly decreased a renter’s likelihood of being evicted: only 14.6% of renters with legal counsel were evicted, as compared to nearly two-thirds (65.4%) of renters without legal representation.

Evictions in New Orleans reflect deep-rooted racial and gender inequities in housing. In a city where 59% of the population is Black, more than 82% of eviction proceedings observed during JPNSI’s court watch period were brought against Black renters. Black women accounted for an exceptionally disproportionate share; 56.8% of eviction cases were brought against Black women.

New Orleans will join the ranks of 12 other cities and 3 states that have passed right-to-counsel measures. In 2017, New York became the first U.S. city to establish right to counsel with the passage of Local Law 136, following years of sustained organizing led by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

When the New York City’s right-to-counsel legislation was first enacted, only renters in specific high-need ZIP codes had guaranteed access to legal representation. As an emergency measure at the start of the pandemic, the Office of Civil Justice made legal representation available to all eligible renters in New York—those whose household income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level—regardless of ZIP code. In May 2021, the city council codified that approach, and Mayor de Blasio signed off on an accelerated implementation schedule for citywide right to counsel. Tenants are now twice as likely to have legal representation during their eviction cases as they were prior to the pandemic.

New York’s right-to-counsel progress report for fiscal year 2021, released on November 17, illustrates the success of the citywide rollout and its positive impact on low-income renters. In 2020, 100% of tenants had access to legal services during eviction proceedings. The report shows that right to counsel is an effective tool to achieve housing stability: 84% of tenants represented under the city’s right-to-counsel initiative have been able to remain in their homes. Since the enactment of the bill, New York City has funded legal services for over 500,000 tenants, including 100,000 during the pandemic in FY21.

To build on these achievements, the city is launching a large-scale right-to-counsel advertising campaign. Led by the Public Engagement Unit (PEU), the Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants (MOPT), and DSS-HRA’s Office of Civil Justice (OCJ), the campaign will increase awareness of the right to counsel and teach New Yorkers about resources available to keep them stably housed. The advertisements will be available in 15 different languages in both print and digital media. The campaign will direct those seeking assistance to the Tenant Helpline, which can be reached by calling 311. MOPT and PEU established the Tenant Helpline in 2020 to connect tenants with PEU Housing Specialists who provide resources and hands-on case management to help them remain in their homes, and the Tenant Helpline will now become a permanent team within PEU.

Tenants can access online information through the New York City Tenant Resource Portal.