‘Right to counsel’ bills for tenant protections approved by majority vote in City Council

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Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson (left) and Councilman Mark Levine (right).
Photo by Mark Hallum

A bill that would protect a tenants right to counsel in the event of litigation with a landlord, as well as one which approves public outreach on the new entitlement, passed in New York City Council on Thursday.

The bills, sponsored by Councilman Mark Levine and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, have had an influence on state and federal lawmakers who aim to enshrine a right to counsel as law of the land, they said in a rally in front of City Hall prior to the stated meeting.

“What you have done, what we have done has been a game-changer in the housing courts of the city. It has sparked a national movement. It has brought some fairness to housing court, where we desperately needed it. And most of all, we have kept 1000s of families in their homes who would have been otherwise a victim. The impact is real. It is tangible. It is measurable,” Levine said during the rally with advocates.

Near the end of the stated meeting, Intro 2050a to extend right to counsel for tenants to every zip code in the city passed with a vote of 43-3-1.

Before the onset of the pandemic, Levine says there was a reduction of 40% in evictions in zip codes that already have right to counsel, something he believes New York needs as the pandemic has hurt the finances of many and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s eviction moratorium nears expiration on June 1.

Nathylin Flowers Adesegun, formerly homeless New Yorker who gained local celebrity status for her 2018 confrontation with Mayor Bill de Blasio at his Park Slope gym, represented VOCAL-NY during the rally and pressed City Council Speaker Cory Johnson and other members of the governing body to fulfill the needs of folks on the brink of homelessness.

“We have a voucher – here’s my voucher – this is how after five years in the shelter I got an apartment. It says, $1,246,” Adesegun said. “We’re all supposed to be entitled to one of these vouchers. This is why we need the city council to step up for the people of New York. We voted for you… We flipped the city council to be Democrat, and are we still gonna still suffer? Do we still have to suffer?”

According to Gibson, the new bill needs to be in effect not only before the moratorium expires, if it is not renewed as it has been over the course of the pandemic, but it will also help with a local recovery.

“Just this week of state of Washington was the first state to pass right to counsel in the entire state, providing free lawyers tenants facing eviction and housing for being a victim is a real theme for so many New Yorkers in many of our communities, as we slowly begin to reopen,” Gibson said.

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition was credited for much of the advocacy work they have conducted over the years.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, during a radio appearance on Hot 97 on April 13, said was an advocate of the moratorium remaining in place and said that the city already offers similar services to the right to counsel.

“There’s been a moratorium. That work continues to protect people. But I want to tell you, Laura, anyone who thinks that they’re being unjustly evicted can call 3-1-1 and talk to our Tenant Protection Office. And if they qualify, they get a lawyer for free,” Mayor de Blasio said. “If you’re threatened with an illegal eviction, the City of New York will provide you a lawyer to protect your interest. And regardless of one’s income, you can get legal advice and legal support.”

At this point, is not clear whether or not de Blasio will sign the bill into law.