clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tenants’ ‘Right to Counsel’ Expands Citywide. Here’s Why that’s a Big Deal

Tenant rights organizers rally at City Hall before a vote on the Right to Counsel bill.
Tenant rights organizers rally at City Hall before a vote on the Right to Counsel bill, Feb. 24, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This article is adapted from our Rent Update newsletter that focuses on the issues facing renters and landlords during the pandemic. You can sign up here to get it or fill out the form at the bottom of this post.


As we wait on the state’s rent relief program to roll out (the site is now live, but applications are not yet), there’s some big news for tenants worried about eviction.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill that expands the city’s Right to Counsel program to every ZIP code in the city. That means that all tenants whose incomes qualify can get free legal representation in Housing Court for eviction cases, no matter what neighborhood they live in.

The mayor also signed a bill that requires the city to work with local tenant organizers to educate tenants about their rights.

Here’s what this all means.

What is ‘Right to Counsel’?

In 2017, after years of tenant advocacy, the City Council passed a law called “Right to Counsel.” It gives tenants facing eviction the right to free legal representation in Housing Court, if they meet income requirements (more on the qualifications below).

When the law went into effect, only tenants in certain high-need ZIP codes qualified for free lawyers. By 2019, 25 city ZIP codes were included.

The plan was to expand the program citywide by the summer of 2022. But that deadline was moved up to now amid the pandemic and tenants throughout all five boroughs are eligible.

Something to note: Eviction cases are civil proceedings, not criminal. So before the Right to Counsel law, tenants were not guaranteed legal representation in court. Previously, only 1% of New York City tenants were represented by an attorney in Housing Court. Last year, that number reached about 40%.

Deep dive: The Right to Counsel Coalition explains more about how the law works here.

What difference does it make to have a lawyer in Housing Court?

It’s a pretty big deal. Proponents say Right to Counsel evens the playing field in Housing Court, where about 95% of landlords have a lawyer but tenants historically have gone unrepresented. aving a lawyer can make a huge difference — especially in a year when court procedures have been confusing and changing often.

Randy Dillard, a tenant leader with CASA and a member of the Right to Counsel Coalition said: “You might not know anything about Housing Court, or what something like an adjournment is, but a lawyer can give you the confidence to be able to fight for your rights.”

In the first two years of implementing Right to Counsel, evictions dropped by nearly 20% in the neighborhoods where tenants qualified. And nearly 85% of tenants who got free lawyers through the program in its first two years were able to ward off eviction.

Other places across the country have implemented this program or are taking a closer look.

Who has a right to counsel now?

Any household in the city with an income under 200% of the federal poverty line. For a family of three, that’s any household making less than $43,920 a year. In the past couple years, the Right to Counsel law covered about 40,000 households annually. Given the pandemic and the expanded ZIP codes, it’s safe to say the number of households that now qualify is well over that.

Landlords have filed more than 50,000 eviction cases during the pandemic despite moratoriums and other protections. That number does not include evictions filed before the pandemic that were already moving through the courts when the pandemic started.

If someone’s income is too high to qualify, the law says they can still get free legal advice from a legal services organization working with the city.

What will change in Housing Court with more people having a right to counsel?

While this is big news for tenants, not much will change initially.

Housing Court in the city has already expanded the right to counsel during the pandemic. Any tenant who needed to appear in Housing Court in the past year had potential access to a free attorney. This new law makes it official and guarantees that right for all New Yorkers going forward as the courts reopen.

What happens when the eviction moratorium expires on Aug. 31?

With so many New Yorkers behind on rent, a ton of people will have a right to counsel when eviction cases can start moving forward again. The courts will need to build in processes to make sure everyone who has a right to an attorney can get representation, and that the city’s tenant attorneys don’t each have too big of a caseload.

Justin La Mort, a tenant attorney with Mobilization for Justice, said: “We have to start preparing for potentially a lot more cases, that means making sure we can hire, support and supervise the number of attorneys needed.”

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the state’s Office of Court Administration, said: “More lawyers for tenants historically translates into a more professional and smoother-running New York City Housing Court.”

So what does Right to Counsel mean for the city’s potential eviction crisis after COVID?

Over the past year, many of the protections against eviction have been Band-Aid solutions addressing what some feared would be a crush of people being evicted after losing income or facing other challenges because of the pandemic.

But the combination of more tenants having a right to counsel and the rollout of the state’s $2.4 billion rent relief program has the potential to prevent and address the feared eviction crisis —if things go as planned and the program is carried out effectively, tenant advocates say.

If the rent relief program works well and people can pay their landlords what they owe, lawyers and advocates hope the number of eviction cases in Housing Court when the moratorium expires will be relatively modest.

La Mort from Mobilization for Justice said: “It’s really about all these pieces working together. If the program works, we can connect tenants to that program. We can facilitate that process and resolve more cases.”

The site for the rent relief program is up now, and tenants and landlords can see what materials they’ll need to apply. The application process should be up and running by the end of May.

Malika Conner, an organizer with the Right to Counsel Coalition, said: “[The eviction crisis] is not a natural disaster, it’s not something that’s bound to happen. We presently have the tools to prevent that, to not make that happen. Moving cases only when tenants have right to counsel is a key component of that, as well as making sure there actually is money to pay back rent.”

Resources

If you’re worried about eviction and want to talk to a lawyer through Right to Counsel, here are your options:

  • Call 311 and ask for the tenant hotline.
  • Call the Housing Court Answers hotline at 212-962-4795.
  • Email the city’s Office of Civil Justice at civiljustice@hra.nyc.gov, and make sure to include your name, your phone number and your Housing Court case index number, if you know it.

What else we’re reading

  • THE CITY checked in with the New Yorkers who were staying in city shelters or on the streets pre-pandemic and moved into hotels a year ago.
  • Gothamist reported on the city Rent Guidelines Board considering extending a rent freeze for tenants in rent-stabilized units.
  • City Limits looked at how de Blasio’s proposed budget falls short in addressing the city’s homelessness crisis.
  • The New York Times revealed that some mayoral candidates have no clue how much it actually costs to buy a home in Brooklyn.

Want to get these updates about workers’ and tenants’ rights emailed or texted to you? Sign up below. If you don’t see the sign up box, click here.

SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS. SUPPORT NEW YORK.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. Please consider joining us as a member today.

GOT A TIP?

We’re here to listen. Email tips@thecity.nyc or visit our tips page for other ways to share.

Sign up for the newsletter Get THE CITY Scoop

Sign up and get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning