Low-Income Tenants Fighting Eviction Get $5M for Legal Help

By Rosa Goldensohn on June 26, 2014 10:27am 

 The city's budget includes $5 million to support low-income tenants who are fighting eviction in Housing Court.
The city's budget includes $5 million to support low-income tenants who are fighting eviction in Housing Court.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

CIVIC CENTER — New Yorkers facing eviction will get more help in Housing Court this year.

The City Council's final budget, approved early Thursday, earmarked $5 million for free legal assistance for low-income tenants who are fighting their landlords in Housing Court, more than double the $2 million that was allocated last year.

The money will go to The Legal Aid Society, Legal Services NYC and other public attorney groups, in an effort to prevent the nearly 30,000 evictions that occurred in New York City last year, advocates said.

City Councilman Mark Levine, who led the push for the additional funding with Councilwomen Vanessa Gibson and Rosie Mendez, said that without attorneys, tenants are on an "uneven playing field" when they try to battle their landlords in court.

“There is a huge crisis in housing court,” Levine said.

Unlike defendants in criminal court, tenants who go to Housing Court do not have a right to an attorney, so the city is not obligated to provide them with legal counsel.

Fewer than 10 percent of the New Yorkers served with eviction papers have an attorney represent them, according to the Urban Justice Center.

"It’s incredibly difficult — its a very complicated and frightening experience," Louise Seeley, executive director of Housing Court Answers, which runs information booths at the city’s housing courts. “People don’t know what their rights are.”

Under the City Council's new budget, Manhattan and Brooklyn will still receive the most funding for housing attorneys, though The Bronx has the highest number of eviction cases in the city, more than 10,000 per year, advocates said.

Levine’s office estimated that the funding would cover attorneys for 2,500 to 3,000 tenants per year, up from 1,000 under last year's budget. That would still leave about 100,000 people per year who go to Housing Court unrepresented.

“Our ultimate goal would be to bring the right to counsel to Housing Court,” Levine told DNAinfo.

Tenants seeking assistance or free legal representation can call the Housing Court Answers hotline, 212-962-4795.

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