NYC Council seek additional legislation to expand tenant ‘right to counsel’

Photo by Mark Hallum

Lawmakers looking to expand and reinforce a landmark 2017 bill giving New York City tenants universal access to legal counsel in housing court rallied at City Hall Monday and held a hearing thereafter to focus on its viability.

Council members backing the bill say that the “right to counsel” law has been such a success that it warrants expansion through a fresh package of bills being dubbed “Right to Counsel 2.0,” as 28,000 families were slated to have been kicked out of their homes in 2018.

Despite the bleak numbers, there has been a decreased in evictions by 30% and a decrease of 15% in cases filed by landlords against tenants, according to Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson.

Councilman Mark Levine and Gibson both serve on the Housing Committee which heard public testimony with overwhelming support for bills.

“It only makes sense that we will increase it,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said. “The dollar doesn’t stretch in New York City like it does elsewhere.”

As it stands, the city Office of Civil Justice provides households with 200% below the federal poverty line, the annual equivalent of $50,000 for a family of four. The two new bills will expand eligibility from 200 to 400%.

Judge Jonathan Lippman, known for his work as head of the Lippman Commission to provide recommendations for closing Rikers Island, said the right to counsel puts New York City ahead of the country in balancing the scales of justice for not only the working poor but for the middle class.

“My whole life has been all about fairness… I believe the right to counsel bill represent the biggest gains for justice in a generation,” Lippman said. “We reduced the entries into the shelter system with this bill.”

According to Lippman, the funding to make the 2017 bill a reality is not the issue at hand; it’s that a large segment of the population still need the resources to protect their domain.

“Funding is not enough, what we’re talking about is the necessities of life. What can be more important than having a roof over your head?” Lippman continued. “We can avoid having these cased before they even reach the courts.”

Tenants who have or are undergoing extensive litigation described living conditions under slumlords who allow their property to decline to unlivable standards to drive tenants out and replace them with new residents who make over $60,000.

Some of these individuals were associated with groups such as Right to Counsel NYC Coalition or Community Action for Safe Apartments. AARP and Legal Aid Society have also thrown their support behind the expansion bills.

Supporters of the bill rallied on the steps of City Hall prior to the hearing where Councilwoman Carlina Rivera said she would back the bill on the basis that her Lower East Side district is one of the hardest hit communities by gentrification. She mentioned that expanding the bill was in keeping with her campaign promises to address displacement.

Lippman pointed to the Constitutional right to legal counsel in arguing that civil cases such as landlord-tenants disputes leave many without representation in court.