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Low-Income Housing Court Tenants to Get Free Lawyers

By Jeff Mays | February 13, 2017 2:34pm
 Tenants facing eviction will receive free access to legal services as part of a $93 million initiative, city officials announced this week.
Tenants facing eviction will receive free access to legal services as part of a $93 million initiative, city officials announced this week.
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DNAinfo/Eddie Small

NEW YORK CITY—Tenants facing eviction will receive free access to legal services as part of a $93 million initiative, city officials announced this week.

The plan, announced Sunday by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, is an expansion of an earlier effort to keep tenants in their homes and to keep them from becoming part of the city's affordable housing crisis.

On Friday, de Blasio announced a plan to increase the city's affordable housing plan by spending $1.9 billion to add 10,000 apartments affordable to those making $40,000 or less, 5,000 of which will be reserved for senior citizens and 500 to be reserved for veterans. The mayor also wants to provide affordable housing subsidies for 25,000 senior citizens via his proposal for a "mansion tax" on apartments selling for above $2.1 million.

De Blasio has received much criticism from affordable housing groups, many of whom supported his election, that his plan to preserve and create 200,000 units of affordable housing by 2024 is not affordable enough for low-income New Yorkers most vulnerable to one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.

Under the legal services proposal, tenants with an annual household income of up to $50,000 for a family of four will receive free legal representation. Tenants facing eviction who earn more than $50,000 will receive free legal counseling.

After the program is fully implemented in 2022, 400,000 New Yorkers per year will utilize the benefit, officials say. The first phase of the program for fiscal year 2018 will commit $15 million in taxpayer money.

"To anyone being forced out of their home or neighborhood, we are fighting for you. This is still your city,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced the effort in advance of his State of the City address Monday.

The plan is an expansion of a $62 million 2014 plan to increase the number of tenants with a lawyer at housing court. Since that initiative went into effect, the number of people represented by a lawyer at housing court jumped from just 1 percent to 27 percent.

By 2022, the city will have committed $155 million to anti-eviction legal services.

Having an attorney makes a huge difference for those facing eviction, advocates say.

While 90 percent of landlords have attorneys, only 25 percent of tenants do, according to the Legal Aid Society. The imbalance gives landlords an unfair advantage since many tenants being evicted cannot afford legal representation.

The Right to Counsel Coalition estimates that half of evictions would be prevented with access to a lawyer — which could make a significant dent in the record 60,000 homeless New Yorkers currently staying in shelters at a cost of nearly $2 billion per year.

Preventing evictions could save the city $320 million per year, experts estimate.

Attorneys for eviction cases cost between $1,600 and $3,200 per case, while a bed in a shelter costs $36,000 per year, the coalition found.

The funding will also be reinforced with legislation to guarantee tenants a right to counsel in housing court. Harlem Councilman Mark Levine and Bronx Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson will sponsor the legislation.

Mark-Viverito called the legislation a "watershed moment for this city and anyone who has fear they will be displaced."

Mark-Viverito gave Levine credit for relentlessly pushing the legislation for the last three years. Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, called the planned legislation "a landmark in the battle for equal justice."

Levine said the legislation and funding mean that low-income New Yorkers won't "have to face the life-altering threat of an eviction alone" any longer. The proposed legislation already has the support of the overwhelming majority of the city council.

"It's been an incredibly unequal playing field in court where one person has an attorney and another doesn't," said Levine. "Over time this will save us a considerable amount money, not to mention the human benefit of allowing families to stay in their homes."