While thousands of tenants face eviction cases without a lawyer, the government office that administers New York City’s Right to Counsel law has scheduled its required annual public hearing from 6 to 9 p.m. this coming Friday — an unorthodox hour for public business.
The meeting will be held online, reads the meeting notice, “Due to COVID-19.”
Tenant groups accuse the Office of Civil Justice of discouraging participation. They had hoped to use the hearing to protest plunging rates of legal representation in Housing Court.
Last fall, THE CITY reported that fewer than 10% of tenants in eviction cases were getting assigned a lawyer, despite the law guaranteeing one for all low-income people.
Meanwhile, poor pay has depressed the number of participating attorneys. On Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 250 attorneys, paralegals and other staffers with the New York Legal Assistance Group plan to walk off the job, demanding pay raises and a better union contract. A large portion work on Right to Counsel cases, according to their union.
“The hearing is on a Friday night + virtual — it’s almost like they designed it for us not to come,” reads a notice from the Right to Counsel (RTC) Coalition, the advocacy group that prevailed on the City Council to get the law passed five years ago.
Members of the coalition described the timing of the hearing as “insulting.”
New Mayor in Town
Susanna Blankley, coalition coordinator for the RTC Coalition, contrasted the regular meetings her group had with the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio with what she describes as little engagement with City Hall under Mayor Eric Adams.
“Why has the role of this agency shifted so much under this administration?” Blankley asked.
Randy Dillard, a Bronx resident and tenant leader with Community Action for Safe Apartments, said Adams has yet to respond to tenant groups’ pleas to pause eviction proceedings when a tenant doesn’t yet have a lawyer.
“We’re upset with them because they have not taken a stand to get the courts to adjourn cases,” he said. “We don’t know really where Adams stands. It’s hard to meet with him. We really haven’t had a real conversation with him about the Right to Counsel since he took over.”
This year’s Friday night public hearing comes after the Office of Civil Justice did not hold any public hearings in 2022, even though the Right to Counsel law calls for “one public hearing each year to receive recommendations and feedback.”
The Right to Counsel Coalition is organizing a rally on location outside its office ahead of Friday’s online hearing and is encouraging tenants to testify over video.
“We need to get our message across, how we’re feeling, what’s going on,” Dillard said. “We’re going to try and keep them on that Zoom as long as we can.”
Then, befitting a Friday night, the coalition lists one last item on the schedule after the hearing: “Dance Party.”
Eviction Cases Surge
Proven highly effective at keeping people in their homes, the Right to Counsel law went into effect for select ZIP codes in 2017. It expanded to cover all income-eligible tenants across the city in 2021.
The city Office of Civil Justice, part of the Human Resources Administration, is tasked with implementing the law, while the state’s Office of Court Administration is responsible for how court proceedings run.
A COVID moratorium on evictions expired in January, leading to a surge of new filings by landlords against tenants in Housing Court.
Before Right to Counsel passed, a New York City Bar Association consultant found that more than eight in ten tenants with Housing Court would qualify for a free lawyer. Yet the latest analysis of state court figures by the Eviction Crisis Monitor, a project of the Right to Counsel Coalition and the nonprofit Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, finds that nearly half of all tenants who appeared in court at least twice for an eviction case since January of last year did not receive legal representation.
Janice Broadie, a tenant at 1111 Ocean Ave. in Brooklyn, is currently fighting an eviction case alongside an attorney. Broadie says she wouldn’t have a lawyer if it weren’t for her local community organizing group, the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, independently supporting her case.
“If you really don’t know the law, if you really don’t know your rights, you’re thinking whatever the opposing party says is true,” she said.
Last week, City Councilmember Shaun Abreu (D-Manhattan) and Councilmember Diana Ayala (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) sent a letter to Mayor Eric Adams calling on him to pressure the state’s Office of Court Administration (OCA) to pause cases until eligible tenants get attorneys.
Adams has not replied to the letter, and his office has not responded to a request from THE CITY to state his position on the issue.
Looking for Lawyers
OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told THE CITY that court officials have been meeting with legal services providers and the Office of Criminal Justice to discuss ways to improve access to counsel, but that “our procedures are not at issue, it is the lack of available attorneys, which we know New York City, who funds the program, is looking to hire.”
The lawyers’ walkout comes after months of stalled union bargaining and the stress of too much work, according to NYLAG attorneys. “They are overburdened with high caseloads, and a high turnover rate because of those caseloads,” says Naji’a Tameez, a senior NYLAG staff attorney and organizer with A Better NYLAG.
THE CITY obtained a letter from representatives of three legal services labor unions, addressed to Acting Chief Administrative Judge Tamiko Amaker and OCJ’s Civil Justice Coordinator Raniece Medley, which criticized their focus on the lawyer shortage instead of agreeing to pause cases where tenants aren’t represented.
“This impulse to put the blame on the legal service providers is merely an attempt to hide the Court and City’s role in undermining Right to Counsel,” the letter reads.
The letter highlights OCA’s power to ameliorate the issue by imposing an “administrative stay on all RTC cases that do not receive an immediate RTC lawyer.”
Last week, Abreu introduced two bills aimed at improving tenants’ chances of getting a lawyer in Housing Court. One bill would ensure that budget estimates for the Office of Civil Justice estimate attorney pay in line for what lawyers make working for the city Law Department. The second calls on the state to set limits on the volume of Housing Court cases.
“We’re in a situation where a lot more families are ending up in the streets,” Abreu told THE CITY.