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The Council Committee on Courts and Legal Service held a hearing yesterday on Intro 214-A, a bill that would require the Office of Civil Justice to establish a program for the provision of legal counsel for low-income tenants who are subject to eviction, ejectment or foreclosure proceedings. Unlike in criminal court, there is no right to counsel in housing court. Tenants without resources must fend for themselves. Today, only about 20% of those facing eviction are represented by an attorney–compared to nearly 100% of landlords. The resulting un-level playing field has been disastrous for tenants. In 2015 alone, nearly 22,000 New York City families were evicted.

The impact of having an attorney is invaluable. Controlled studies show that having legal representation during housing court proceedings reduces the chances of eviction by 77%, and in some cases landlords simply drop their cases after learning the tenant has an attorney. Supporters of this legislation include the Progressive Caucus,  tenant and affordable housing advocates, 1199SEIU, DC37, LiveOn NY, Coalition for the Homeless, the National Center for Access to Justice, and the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. Full Release

WHAT PROGRESSIVE CAUCUS MEMBERS SAY:

Council Member Mark Levine said, “the hearing’s incredible turnout is a testament to the seriousness of the issue we are addressing. We are here to address a crisis. That crisis is the threat of eviction faced by tens of thousands of tenants, our fellow New Yorkers, who are on an incredibly uneven playing field in a place where the standard should be fairness. But there is no fairness in an eviction proceeding when the landlord has an attorney and the tenant does not, and that sadly is the precise situation faced by the vast majority of tenants today. The results of this injustice are predictable: an epidemic of evictions. In 2015 alone, nearly 22,000 New York City families were evicted, with thousands more forced from their homes under duress mid-way through eviction proceedings. That’s why I authored Intro 214-A. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have taken the critical step of increasing funding for tenant legal representation more than tenfold–and evictions have dropped 24% as a result. But nearly three-quarters of low-income tenants are still left to fend for themselves. That’s why we need this bill.”

“Right to Counsel would undo the prevalent injustices and victimization of low-income tenants in New York City. Leveling the playing field by providing legal representation in housing court would provide housing security and economic stability for many working-class families,” said Progressive Caucus Co-chair, Council Members Donovan Richards. “With this important legislation, the Council is sending a clear and uncompromised message that we believe tenants are entitled to safe and affordable housing free from market pressures that promote illegal harassment and displacement.”

Council Member Antonio Reynoso, Progressive Caucus Co-chair said, “Tenant lawyers representing my constituents in housing court have made a huge impact on stabilizing communities in my district. Yet right now their resources are limited, and not everyone can access these services.  Ensuring the right to counsel would be a much-needed check on bad landlord behavior, would keep tenants in their homes, and would help keep our communities diverse.”

“Having a lawyer can be the difference between keeping your home or getting evicted and thrown out on the street,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, Progressive Caucus Vice-chair. “We must expand our constitutional right to legal representation in criminal cases from Gideon v. Wainwright to Housing Court to protect New Yorkers from wrongly losing their homes and their property.”

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, Progressive Caucus Vice-chair said, “Housing court is hardly fair when only one side has legal representation. Investing in lawyers for tenants in housing court will help keep families in their homes, and we have a fiscal and moral responsibility to do that. I thank Council Member Mark D. Levine for leading the charge on this essential issue.”

“Tenants facing eviction have the right to protection under ‎the law, and the surest way to reinforce that right is to ensure that tenants have counsel,” said Council Member Margaret S. Chin. “This bill will increase access to legal services for tenants who are facing increasing pressure, aggressive tactics and harassment from landlords. I thank Council Members Levine and Gibson, as well as the broad coalition of tenant advocates, for their hard work on this important issue.”

“Having a lawyer in NYC’s housing court can be the difference between keeping a stable home for your family and falling into homelessness,” said Council Member Brad Lander. “If we are truly committed to addressing the City’s housing crisis, we need to make sure every tenant gets a fair opportunity to make their case. By passing the Right to Counsel, we can not only give families in need a fairer chance of keeping their home, but save the City future tax dollars that would otherwise need to be spent on providing shelters and developing affordable housing for evicted New Yorkers. Thanks to Council Member Levine for working to ensure sure low-income tenants get the fair chance they deserve.”

Council Member Menchaca said, “Legal help can mean the difference between displacement and a fair outcome when your home is on the line.  Landlords have lawyers, tenants must have representation too. When tenants have legal counsel in housing court, their chances for a fair outcome skyrocket. Our city is in the midst of an extreme housing crisis. What’s the use of rushing to build new affordable housing when long-time renters are routinely kicked to the curb?  We must protect our neighbors – especially low-income immigrants, families, and elders – who are especially vulnerable to complicated legal procedures and grossly unfair housing practices. Secure housing is a right. Legal representation to preserve our homes should be a right as well.”

“Legal representation is everyone’s right and I am proud to support this legislation ensuring those in need are able to defend themselves before a possible eviction” said Councilman I. Daneek Miller. “If enacted, thousands of families will be stay out of homeless shelters, saving the City millions of dollars. I would like to thank my colleagues Councilman Mark Levine and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, along with all the advocates standing up for the rights of working families.”

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said, “Tenants across the city feel this housing crisis most when their landlords resort to dirty tricks to push them out. Low income New Yorkers rarely have the money or legal acumen to fight back, which can lead to displacement and even homelessness. With the Right to Counsel Act, we’re putting our foot down to say tenants have a right to defend themselves. I’m proud to join Council Member Levine in this effort as we know the tough price tenants pay without legal help.”

Councilwoman Debi Rose said, “When more than 90% of landlords are represented by counsel and less than 10% of tenants come to housing court with representation, we have a serious imbalance in our system. Providing civil legal services to low-income tenants not only prevents coercion and abuse, but it saves taxpayers money as well. When tenants are unsuccessful in our complex legal system—or simply give up out of frustration—their unmet legal needs invariably take a toll on local government and on the taxpayers. We see this in the record numbers of people housed in our city’s shelter system. The long-term costs of unrepresented individuals in our legal system touch all aspects of a community, and that is why I support providing all tenants with access to attorneys.”

Council Member Jumaane D. Williams said, “Low-income New Yorkers are one of the most vulnerable populations in the City and thus need added resources and assistance. Unlike in criminal court, tenants are not afforded free legal counsel in housing court, giving landlords, who almost always have legal representation, an advantage. Given the housing and homelessness crisis in this City, it is our duty as legislators to give all New Yorkers a level playing field in housing court.”

IN THE NEWS

NY Times, For Tenants Facing Eviction, New York May Guarantee a Lawyer

WNYC, Tenants Push for Right to Counsel in Housing Court

Gothamist, NYC Council Kicks Off Hearings On Free Counsel For Poor Tenants

Village Voice, Low-Income Tenants May Soon Have the Right to an Attorney in Housing Court

The Real Deal, Why landlords could soon have a much tougher time evicting poor tenants

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