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Overwhelmed With Cases, Free Housing Lawyers Ask for Four Times the Funding

“We have nonprofits that are stretched too thin, and they are rejecting cases because they’re not getting the resources they need from the city,” said City Councilmember Shaun Abreu.

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Tenants rights advocates rallied outside Brooklyn Housing Court last fall.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The need for no-fee attorneys for people facing eviction in New York City is so great that nonprofit legal providers are asking the city to quadruple the budget for their services. But the City Council speaker says it’s the state that needs to step up.

The attorney groups who represent low-income tenants in Housing Court this week called on City Hall to increase funding from the current $110 million they receive to $461 million for Fiscal Year 2024, which begins July 1. 

The request comes as Mayor Eric Adams has pushed most agencies to cut 4% from their budgets as part of citywide cutbacks. Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’ office said Wednesday that any additional funds for eviction lawyers would have to come from the state budget, not the city’s.

“We have been advocating for the state budget to support by contributing a major share to fulfill the need,” Adams’ spokesperson told THE CITY. “This Council is committed to fighting for a city budget that invests in the critical programs New Yorkers rely on, including legal services that keep renters and homeowners alike in their homes.”

State lawmakers are still hashing out a budget in Albany, having blown past the April 1 deadline. Gov. Kathy Hochul extended the deadline to April 17.

No Money, More Problems

The lawyer groups — including Legal Services NYC (LSNYC), The Legal Aid Society, New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), and others — say they need more funds to address salary increases for staff and new hires and to ensure their capacity to represent anyone who needs help with evictions.

The attorneys are contracted with the city to provide legal help as mandated by the city’s landmark “Right to Counsel” (RTC) policy, which mandates that all New Yorkers who earn 200% of the poverty level or less— must be given free legal counsel in housing cases. It was first introduced as a pilot in 2017 and expanded citywide during the pandemic.

In an email to THE CITY, RTC providers said that in March and April of 2022, for the first time ever, LSNYC, The Legal Aid Society, and NYLAG could not adequately staff Housing Court’s new client intake due to insufficient personnel and increased demand. 

Since then, RTC providers have said they had to reject over 10,000 housing court cases and would have to reject more if they don’t get a funding increase. NYLAG officials said they have a 22% attrition rate due to low salaries that don’t reflect the cost of living, student loan debt, and high caseloads. Legal Aid Society officials said they have 35 RTC attorney vacancies and a 30% attrition rate. 

Rosalind Black, citywide director of housing at Legal Services NYC, said elected officials need to keep the promise of the Right to Counsel law.

“The city — and the state — have a vested interest in keeping as many tenants in safe, affordable homes as possible, and this program is a highly effective way to do that,” Black told THE CITY. “Without it, the Right to Counsel will continue to falter, housing attorneys will continue to burn out and leave, and tenants will continue to be ushered through housing court unrepresented, putting themselves and their families at risk of homelessness.”

Inundated and Exhausted

In Upper Manhattan, Democratic Councilmember Shaun Abreu said he’s been inundated with calls from struggling tenants. His district encompasses the ZIP code with the borough’s most evictions filed since the pandemic-era moratorium was lifted in 2022, according to the Cornell ILR Eviction Filings Dashboard.

“I kid you not. Over 50% of our [constituent services] are really tenants coming in and saying that they’re facing eviction,” Abreu told THE CITY. “And they want us to help them by connecting them to the Right to Counsel, but unfortunately, the Right to Counsel is not what it used to be.”

He added, “We have nonprofits that are stretched too thin and are rejecting cases because they’re not getting the resources they need from the city. Landlords take advantage of tenants who are without representation.”

Tenant rights advocates rally in the Financial District to demand court officials enforce Right to Counsel during eviction proceedings, Aug. 17, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In February, Abreu introduced a bill requiring the city’s Office of Civil Justice coordinator to prepare annual estimates of funding needed to implement the Right to Counsel law — and requiring that legal services salaries be on par with those of lawyers working for the city’s Law Department. He also introduced a resolution calling the state legislature to pass a  law requiring any party eligible under local law for free legal counsel for an eviction proceeding may be granted an adjournment by the court for additional time to secure legal representation.

Sarah Stefanski, assistant director of housing, environment, and infrastructure for the city’s Independent Budget Office, told THE CITY that while she doesn’t know if RTC providers will have their wishes granted, she knows that the current budget for those lawyers does not match the need.

“There hasn’t really been, with that citywide expansion, an expansion in the budget,” Stefanski told THE CITY. “There’s this tension of, we’re offering this service to anyone who qualifies for it, but there’s not enough money to provide the service to everyone who qualifies for it.

“One thing that we hear a lot from providers is that those city contracts don’t reimburse them enough relative to the cost of the case,” she added.

City Comptroller Brad Lander told THE CITY that courts should outright ignore eviction filings where low-income tenants don’t have access to a lawyer.

“At a time when affordable housing supply is scarce, tenants need every avenue to stay in stable and secure housing,” Lander said. “Judges should adjourn any cases in which Right to Counsel-eligible tenants are unrepresented until they can access legal representation as mandated by New York City law.”

Lawyers Make a Difference

Lander and Abreu referenced an RTC Progress Report from former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, which revealed that 84% of tenants are able to stay in their homes when they are represented by a free attorney. 

Mayor Adams’ office referred questions for this article to the Department of Social Services, whose spokesperson, Neha Sharma, said in a statement: “Helping New Yorkers facing eviction stay in their homes is a critical tool to prevent homelessness and reduce housing instability. At-risk tenants remain our top priority, and we continue to work to ensure that we are connecting anyone who may have been impacted to appropriate legal services and supports.”

Abreu said the lack of legal representation for low-income tenants will increase evictions and create an even larger homelessness crisis.

“This will exhaust the already exhausted shelter infrastructure, without a doubt, which is why we need to double down on the Right to Counsel to keep people in their homes,” he argued. “We know that if you have a lawyer, families [have a better chance of] staying in their homes. And so that would not further exhaust the shelter system.”

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