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Expanding the Right to Counsel

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

Originally posted on Medium

In 2017 the New York City Council passed the landmark Right to Counsel bill, which provides free legal representation to all income eligible individuals facing eviction in housing court. The bill was a major step forward in protecting tenants and reducing evictions.

According to a study by the Community Service Society, “[a]mong the approximately 22,000 New Yorkers represented by OCJ-funded attorneys in FY 2018, 84 percent were able to remain in their homes.” In zip codes where Right to Counsel (RTC) was implemented, evictions decreased by 11 percent, as opposed to 2 percent in non-RTC zip codes.

While the program has shown remarkable success in the past year, there are a number of ways we can improve Right to Counsel to better serve New Yorkers. The Right to Counsel Coalition has recommended the following changes:

Expand Eligibility Currently RTC is only available to tenants whose household income is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty guidelines. There is currently a bill in the City Council that would expand the scope of right to counsel for all tenants making under 400 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. This change would affect nearly a third of all tenants in housing court. We need to pass Intro-1104 which would increase eligibility, and keep more people in their homes. Expand the Number of Cases Covered While RTC is available to tenants in housing court, several hundred cases every year are heard in other venues, such as HPD administrative hearings and HDFC cases. Appeals are also not covered by RTC, which greatly disadvantages tenants whose landlords challenge their victories in a higher court.

Additionally, we need to support increased funding for the RTC program. Due to both a lack of resources and properly trained staff, RTC is being phased in over 5 years, so that currently only tenants in a small number of zip codes are eligible. The sooner we can fully fund and staff the program, the better it will be for all New York City tenants.

We also need to commit resources to community education. According to the RTC Coalition, “a recent survey done by volunteers at Bronx Housing Court found that 53% of tenants who had a right to a lawyer didn’t know about this right before arriving in court.” We need to make sure tenants know their rights, and that they have access to all of the resources at their disposal. Intro-1529 would require the office of the civil justice coordinator to collaborate with community groups in engaging and educating tenants of their rights in housing court, and then report on their efforts.

The Right to Counsel was a major victory for all New Yorkers. Now we must work to improve upon the legislation to ensure that all tenants are treated fairly when facing possible eviction. Expanded RTC, along with Good Cause eviction laws, stronger rent regulations, and more stringent code enforcement will give all tenants a real fighting chance to stay in their homes.

For more information on the Right to Counsel Coalition, you can visit their website HERE.

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