Town & Village

Council votes to support low-income tenants’ right to counsel

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Council Member Vanessa Gibson, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Mark Levine at the vote on the legislation (Photo via Mark Levine’s Twitter page)

By Sabina Mollot

On Thursday, the City Council voted overwhelmingly to support the right of tenants facing eviction to access free legal representation. In support were 42 Council members with three opposed and one abstention.

The mayor has already indicated his support for the bill, which was sponsored by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson. The legislation, introduced in 2014, has since been pushed along by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, which is made up of dozens of civic, tenant and legal assistance organizations.

The legislation likely took three years to get voted on due to the cost, which is estimated at $155 million a year. That figure is based on $93 million to be added to city money that’s already budgeted for similar services, around $62 million, according to Andrew Scherer, the policy director of Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School, who’s been deeply involved in the coalition’s efforts.

“It’s going to cost the city a sizable chunk of money,” said Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC. But, the tenant advocate argued, ultimately it will save even more money if it keeps tenants in their apartments and out of homeless shelters. “It’s definitely a game changer.”

According to data on the coalition’s website, studies show that half of evictions that take place wouldn’t be successful if tenants had attorneys. The coalition also believes the bill’s implementation will lead to fewer court cases, as it de-incentivizes frivolous, costly litigation from landlords.

On Thursday, the mayor praised the legislation, saying prevention was “a key component” of his administration’s plan to tackle the homeless crisis.

“Everyone, no matter their income level, deserves access to counsel to stop wrongful evictions and keep their homes,” de Blasio said.

He’d also pledged his support back in February during his State of the City address.

“If you’re facing illegal eviction, you get a lawyer,” he said. “If you’re facing illegal overcharge of rent you get a lawyer. If you’re facing illegal harassment you get a lawyer. And beyond that, any New Yorker that makes over $50,000, that’s fine – any New Yorker will have access to free legal support and advice to help them navigate housing court and get fairness.”

Specifically, New Yorkers who are not income eligible for free counsel would get “brief legal assistance,” according to a City Council press release.

To be income eligible, a household would need to be no higher than 200 percent of the federally established poverty line, which is at $48,500 for a family of four, according to Scherer. Originally, the bill would only have covered tenants at 125 percent of the poverty line, but that was changed.

Additionally, the legislation calls for assistance for NYCHA residents with administrative lease termination proceedings beginning in October.

The plan will be phased in over five years via zip codes, with seniors, the disabled and the formerly homeless to be given priority.

“We don’t want everybody to expect they’ll get counsel between today and tomorrow,” said Scherer. “It’s a lot of cases and they need to hire a lot of attorneys. They need to rent new offices.”

In the meantime, Scherer recommended that any tenant currently staring down an eviction notice call 311 to get steered to appropriate legal services he or she may be entitled to, including right to counsel.

The legislation, he added, hasn’t faced any vocal opposition that he was aware of from the real estate industry.

“It’s hard to make an argument that people shouldn’t have representation,” said Scherer. “You’ve got to be embarrassed to make that argument.”

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