Borough President Mark Levine and state Senator Brad Hoylman joined forces with a tenant coalition Wednesday to demand city courts stop processing eviction cases without legal representation.
In 2017, the City Council passed a bill that committed to provide free legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction proceedings in housing court.
As housing courts across the five boroughs have begun processing the 200,000-case backlog of eviction filings that the state legislature had put on hold during the pandemic, Levine and the tenants groups are saying that the city is failing to live up to its promise.
“There are thousands of tenants who are not getting their legally entitled right to an attorney fulfilled,” Levine said at a rally outside the Office of Court Administration (OCA) building in the Financial District on Tuesday morning.
To address the problem, Levine and the tenant groups have set their sights on the state court system administrators, urging them to issue a policy that would stop eviction proceedings until tenants can access a lawyer from the city.
Flanked by a group of tenants activists bearing signs that labeled Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks the “Chief Evictor,” Levine called on him to immediately issue an administrative order that would only allow cases where tenants have secured a retainer with a right-to-counsel attorney to move forward. All others should be adjourned until the respondents secure legal counsel, he said.
“We have new cases being introduced every day. It has overwhelmed our system for providing tenants with legal services. They cannot handle a caseload that is so great,” Levine said.
In a response to the rally, the OCA doubled down on its policy not to adjourn eviction cases legal representation. A spokesperson for the court system acknowledged that the shortage of city-provided legal representation is a problem, but disagreed with Levine’s proposed solution.
“The pending case inventory is no greater than before the pandemic. Adjourning cases into perpetuity is not the solution for either the petitioner or respondent,” wrote OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen.
Chelfen noted that OCA representatives are scheduled to meet the members from both Right to Counsel Providers and the City’s Office of Civil Justice on August 24 to “strategize about resolutions.”
Eviction cases are on the rise, but still not at pre-pandemic levels. Cases have more than doubled this year through July compared to the same period in 2021, Law360 reported. But the filings are still significantly lower average for the three-year period leading up to the pandemic.
Levine’s office reported that over 1,500 tenants have been evicted since the lapse of the eviction ban in January. He also reported that an estimated 3,000 tenants have had to go through an eviction proceeding without an attorney.
At the root of the problem, workforce shortages at the legal service providers are stopping them from keeping up with the mounting caseloads.
“A lot of the attorneys are leaving because before where you were getting 30 cases now you’re getting 60 cases,” said Randy Dillard, a tenant leader at Community Action for Safer Apartments, who led the rally with Levine.
But Levine said the solution has to start with court administration.
“There are more eviction cases than there are attorneys,” Levine said. “There’s no short-term solution other than the court system slowing down the calendaring of cases,” Levine said.