New York is the first city ever to pass legislation guaranteeing free legal representation for low-income residents facing eviction from New York Housing Authorities buildings. The announcement is good news for families that are facing eviction who do not have the funds to pay for a lawyer.
The new legislation provides legal representation for “tenants that make below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. (For a single person, the cutoff off would be $23,540: for a family of four, it would be $48,500.)”
Per the New York Times, there were approximately 22,000 evictions in the Bronx last year. Evictions in New York City fell to their lowest level in a decade, court estimates show. Evictions dropped to 21,988 in 2015, an 18 percent decline from a year earlier.
In the last two years, the de Blasio administration has vastly increased financing for tenant legal services, setting aside nearly $62 million dollars. Funding has increased from $6.4 million in 2013. In a published report by the Office of Civil Justice, 70 percent of low-income tenants still go to Housing Courts without legal help.
Landlords are usually represented by attorneys in court leaving the tenant to represent themselves. Many tenants do not understand their legal rights when facing evictions. As such, most usually take deals and give up their apartments. “Providing tenants with lawyers can make a difference in other ways. Legal services lawyers say that landlords often drop eviction cases entirely once they learn that a tenant is represented.”
“City officials and lawyers say few tenants understand their rights under the city’s rent stabilization law. They often do not know, for example, that they are typically entitled to a new lease when their current one expires, or that there are strict caps on how much their rent can increase.” In addition, even tenants struggling with overdue rent may be assisted legal aid.
The legislation passed due to overwhelming support from a broad coalition that included labor unions and the New York City Bar Association, as well as traditional tenants rights advocates. In September 2016, elected officials, including borough presidents from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, the city public comptroller and the public advocate, also gathered to show their support for the bill.
In a report by Stout Risius Ross, an independent advisory firm for the Bar Association, providing legal representation to all low-income tenants would cost the city about $200 million a year. However, the report contended that the effort would save the city even more than that—over $300 million, annually—by keeping 5,237 families a year out of shelters, at a cost of $43,000 per family.
New York City is leading the fight in helping low-income families remain in their apartments or homes. It is GCE’s hope that many other cities and states will begin to provide legal representation to low-income families.