NYC Borough Presidents Demand ‘Right to Counsel’ for Tenants in Housing Court

Two of the city’s borough presidents are teaming up to help hundreds of low-income New Yorkers who have been embroiled in legal eviction proceedings without legal representation.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson say tenants forced to represent themselves in Housing Court – due to backlog pandemic of eviction cases that overwhelm public defenders — undermine the city’s “right to counsel” law.

Levine and Gibson drafted the original right to counsel bill while serving on city council. It first went into effect in 2017 and requires the city to provide renters with free legal representation in housing court if their income falls below 200% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, this translates to an annual income of less than $41,625.

Public defender groups tasked with providing free legal work said they did not have enough lawyers for everyone. As a result, around 2,500 defendants eligible for the right to counsel have faced deportation proceedings without a lawyer since March, according to data shared with the Daily News by the Office of Court Management.

Levine and Gibson have a six-point plan for how they think state and city agencies can help bring the city back into line with the law.

“We fought very hard to win that right for tenants and it’s just appalling to see it undermined today,” Levine said.

“And the implications are real: When you take the lawyer out and tell the tenant they have to fend for themselves, the results are terrible,” the Manhattan Borough President added, referring to city data showing that 86% of tenants who receive representation from the Right to Counsel Program stay in their homes.

As a matter of urgency, the Levine-Gibson plan calls on the Office of Courts Management to halt the “breathtaking speed” with which it has been scheduling Housing Court cases since the moratorium on evictions related to the state pandemic on January 15.

Additionally, if an eviction case proceeds against a tenant eligible for a right to counsel, but public defender groups are unable to provide representation, the plan proposes that the case be automatically stayed until that a lawyer can be appointed.

The plan also urges Mayor Adams’ Department of Social Services to create a new Housing Court unit that would check whether tenants in eviction cases are eligible for a variety of grants and subsidies, such as the FHEPS Rent Supplement, arguing that such screenings would help ease the workload of the courts as well.

The other elements of the plan urge the state to take a series of steps to help tenants, including speeding up applications for the Emergency Rent Assistance Program, which covers arrears for people who have struggled to pay their rent. rent during the pandemic.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the Office of Court Management, rejected Levine and Gibson’s request to automatically freeze unrepresented eviction cases, saying “it would be harmful and illegal.” Chalfen also pushed back against the idea that the courts are seeing an abnormal number of eviction cases and accused public defender groups of passing the buck.

“We’re obviously hearing more cases than in the middle of the pandemic with all of its reprieves and restrictions, but what we’re doing now is completely normal,” he said. “The load is on [the public defender groups] come up with ideas, other than shifting responsibility for their inability to hire lawyers and run their offices.

After New York’s eviction moratorium expired in January, landlords began flooding the city’s housing court cases, with more than 13,000 eviction lawsuits filed in February and March alone, according to the Office of Courts Administration. This is in addition to the roughly 200,000 eviction lawsuits filed during the pandemic that were frozen during the moratorium.

Against this backdrop, Adriene Holder, chief civil practice lawyer at the Legal Aid Society, said it was irresponsible for the Office of Court Management to return to the status quo in housing courts.

The office “must limit the timing of housing cases, based on provider capacity, so that all tenants facing eviction have legal representation,” said Holder, whose group provides free counseling to those facing eviction. ‘expulsion. “We hope [the Office of Court Administration] will do the right thing for these vulnerable New Yorkers, and we call on other stakeholders, including City Hall, to champion the Right to Counsel initiative.

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