By Joseph Turco, Esq.
Here is some good news for tenants: The gradual rollout of the ‘Right to Counsel’ for tenants in the NYC Housing Court is progressing as expected. The promised funding, which Mayor di Blasio has declared as crucial to preserving affordable housing, is being allocated in stages. By 2022, it will reach $155 million annually.
The money is meant to guarantee free lawyers for tenants whose household incomes are below $50,000 for a family of four, and to provide free know-your-rights-type counseling and guidance for people who earn more than that. Eventually, every tenant who qualifies will get a free lawyer if faced with eviction proceedings. The system will operate much like it does in criminal court: A tenant will appear in court, attest to his/her income, and then be assigned a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society, or one of its sister organizations in the five boroughs.
To understand the impact of such a progressive policy on housing, consider this statistic: Some 35,000 evictions were brought by landlords last year. According to experts, half of them could have been avoided had tenants been afforded legal representation. About 90% of landlords have lawyers in court, but only about 15% of tenants do. The right to counsel will level the playing field and exponentially increase a tenant’s odds of winning in Housing Court, according to former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. The New York Times estimates that one-quarter of all evictions are already being prevented. These statistics bode well for this new program, which we will want to protect and expand.
In my experience, the moment a tenant’s lawyer appears in court, the whole tenor of the case improves. The tenant’s arguments are taken more seriously and landlords are more ready to settle or otherwise capitulate. A colleague at Legal Aid tells me that once assigned to a case, she can help the tenant navigate the maze of housing laws, rent regulations, and housing subsidy programs.
I am thankful that we live in a progressive place like NYC. A comprehensive right to counsel is unheard of in most other American cities. And if it’s the expense you’re worried about, consider this: In the next few years, free tenant lawyers will cost the City about $150 million, but shelter costs for the City are already that high. Given that one-third of those housed in shelters are there because of evictions that could have been averted, one can already see the savings that will accrue. This is civil society at its best. Once we take into account the added benefits like better health, education, and community harmony that secure housing helps maintain, the savings to society are multiplied. One wonders why we did not create this program decades ago.
A friend of mine asked me the other day, “If everyone gets a free lawyer, won’t you lose business?” I hope so.