Court officials urged to improve tenants’ Right to Counsel

Lawmakers who shepherded through City Hall legislation that lays the groundwork for providing low-income tenants facing an eviction with legal representation by 2022 are urging the court system to take several steps to ease the transition.

In a mid-March memo, City Council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson urged the state’s chief judge to ensure courts are physically configured so eligible tenants and lawyers can convene and to do a better job of informing individuals about their right to representation.

“There are challenges particularly in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island on functional, confidential space for attorneys to meet with clients. It’s also really important that tenants understand they have this right before they show up for their court hearing,” Levine said. “Sometimes landlord attorneys work the line outside of housing court, which can be very long in the morning, even over an hour. … The tenant might, again, out of fear and desperation, sign a very unfavorable document.”

Under the so-called Right to Counsel measure, those who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level are entitled to legal representation in housing court and those with higher incomes are eligible for a legal consultation. The initiative, which officials are gradually rolling out by ZIP code, contributed to evictions declining 11 percent in ZIP codes where the service was offered in 2018 compared to 2017, when it was not yet in effect, according to an analysis from the Community Service Society of New York. The eviction rate in ZIP codes covered by Right to Counsel declined more than five times compared to other ZIP codes with similar characteristics, according to the organization, which advocates for low-income New Yorkers. 

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the court system, said officials will review the suggestions in the letter and noted that court administrators have made several changes to accommodate the initiative. 

The cramped confines of courthouses, where lawyers meet with clients on benches in the hallway and, at one point, hearings were held in elevator bays, may be dissuading some eligible tenants from working with attorneys, according to those in the Right to Council Coalition.

“Everybody’s hearing your business. Your landlord is hearing your business. Other tenants are hearing your business,” said Randy Dillard, a member of the coalition’s steering committee and a leader at Community Action for Safe Apartments in the Bronx.

Levine argued housing court should be set up in the same way as criminal court, where attorneys are provided and intake space is set aside so they can meet privately with clients, or family court, where child care services are available. His memo mentions facilities must be accessible to those with physical disabilities and the lawyers the government contracts with should be cued into longer-term plans for housing courts. 

Although the Rent Stabilization Association supported the Right to Counsel legislation, Mitch Posilkin, counsel to the trade group for rent-regulated apartment owners, said supporters are prematurely calling it a success. He said eviction statistics are influenced by several other factors, including City Hall’s fairly new homeless prevention practices of covering more in unpaid rent for vulnerable tenants. Posilkin said cases are taking longer to conclude, which means landlords must spend more time securing unpaid rent and can have a tougher time paying taxes, insurance and other bills.

“Until the housing courts move into the 21st century with regard to their allocations of space, landlords also need the opportunity to meet with their attorneys,” Posilkin said. “Everybody deserves to be treated fairly in housing court, and it’s not only the Right to Counsel litigants, it’s all litigants.”

In the Bronx, administrators moved three housing court parts that were set up in elevator bays to the nearby, larger courthouse at 851 Grand Concourse and aim to fully move its operations to that location by mid-2020, according to Chalfen and a report he sent to amNewYork in response to several questions about the lawmakers’ letter. The report highlights plans to move the Brooklyn civil and housing court to the borough’s municipal building within two years, but does not directly address all space-related concerns, particularly about intake areas designed to accommodate lawyer-client discussions. 

Additionally, Levine and Gibson said information about the Right to Counsel should be provided at as many stages of the eviction case process as possible, starting with noting it in legal paperwork and on marshal’s notices and instructing judges and court personnel to mention it throughout the day. Their memo also outlines several ways to improve the program for those with limited English proficiency as well as homebound and physically disabled tenants. 

Court officials are close to finalizing notice of petition forms that advise tenants about their Right to Counsel and administrators are undertaking a review of all forms, notices and other materials to ensure they are written in plain language and translations are available, according to the report from Chalfen. 

But many of these ideas have been hashed out since shortly after the law was signed in 2017, yet gone unimplemented, according to Marika Dias, a Legal Services NYC attorney who is on the steering committee of the Right to Counsel Coalition.

“It really needs to happen as soon as possible because every day that tenants are unaware of their Right to Counsel are days, where tenants can potentially be evicted,” Dias said.