Councilmembers propose expansion of Right to Counsel

Councilmember Carlina Rivera spoke in support of bills that will expand Right to Counsel at a rally outside City Hall on Monday. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson lead a rally on Monday to support their new legislation that would strengthen and expand the Right to Counsel law that passed in 2017.

The Committee on the Justice System and the Committee on Housing and Buildings held a joint hearing on the two new bills following the rally outside City Hall.

New York was the first jurisdiction in the country to guarantee legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction when the current law passed in 2017. The law mandated the Office of Civil Justice to provide tenants with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line, or $50,200 annually for a family of four, with free legal representation when facing eviction. A report from the Community Service Society of New York releases this week found that the law helped reduce evictions but showed that there were still gaps.

Councilmember Carlina Rivera, a co-sponsor of both pieces of legislation, said that the current Right to Counsel law has already helped her district.

“My neighborhood was ground zero for gentrification and before Right to Counsel, you weren’t a person, you were a number,” she said. “Many didn’t believe that [Right to Counsel] was the right thing to do. But we are here to tell you, years later, not only was it the right thing to do, but families are in their homes because of Right to Counsel. There was a 40% reduction in evictions […] and we know that right to counsel is the way to go. New York City has been a leader on Right to Counsel.”

The new laws introduced by Councilmembers Levine and Gibson would double the income eligibility threshold to 400%, expand the law outside the Housing Court System and would require that the city work with housing organizers to do educational outreach about Right to Counsel.

“The data is irrefutable: the historic Right to Counsel law the City Council fought for and passed in 2017 is a core reason why New Yorkers facing eviction are staying in their homes, off the streets, and out of the shelter system,” Levine said. “Our bill was a tremendous step towards justice in NYC’s housing courts, where for generations the vast majority of tenants faced the threat of eviction without the benefit of a lawyer. But with the skyrocketing cost of living in New York City, more and more people above 200% of the federal line are in fact facing enormous economic struggles.”

Councilmember Mark Levine

According to the report from the Community Service Society of New York, 30% of moderate-income New Yorkers have experienced housing hardship, which indicates that doubling the qualifying threshold to 400% of the federal poverty level could have an impact.

“Right to Counsel is a landmark law that demonstrates New York City’s commitment to supporting tenants – a commitment that we should extend to more New Yorkers,” said Councilmember Keith Powers, a co-sponsor of both bills. “With this new legislation, individuals who are under threat throughout the city will have the resources and community support to fight eviction.”

In addition to increasing the income threshold, the bills would also expand the right to counsel outside housing court, which means that tenants facing eviction proceedings in higher courts of administrative hearings would be given free legal representation. These cases include HPD administrative hearings for Mitchell-Lama residents, certain Supreme Court Ejectment cases and Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) cases.

The current law guarantees an attorney for the entire case but does not cover appeals, and since more tenants are winning their cases compared to before Right to Counsel initially passed, more landlords are filing appeals, and tenants left without legal representation during this process are at a disadvantage during the most consequential decision of the case. The new bill expands the current law to include HPD, DHCR and Supreme Court Ejectment hearings and appeals.

One of the bills also requires that the city work with neighborhood-based groups with histories of tenant organizing and community service to do education and outreach work so that every tenant knows and understands the new laws.

The bills have received support and endorsements from various elected officials and housing advocacy groups, including the city’s largest public service union DC37,  the Legal Aid Society, Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, The Urban Justice Center, AARP and others.

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