Council member Mark Levine. Image credit: William Alatriste/NYC Council
If enacted into law, Intro 214 would make New York City the first municipality in the nation to provide free legal representation to low-income tenants in Housing Court. On March 26, 2014, the “Right to Counsel” bill was introduced in the New York City Council by co-sponsors Council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson. The proposed law would provide free legal representation to low-income City tenants and homeowners earning income that is not in excess of 125% of the federal poverty line and facing eviction and foreclosure proceedings in Housing Court.
In New York City Housing Courts and other housing courts across the country, most landlords appear with legal counsel, while most tenants and debtors appear unrepresented. The outcomes of these litigation proceedings are telling—most unrepresented litigants lose to their legally-represented counterparts. “This grim picture looks very different when the tenant has a lawyer. With substantive advocacy,” stated Yisroel Schulman, former president and attorney-in-charge at New York Legal Assistance Group, “the likelihood of eviction drops dramatically. Numerous studies show that tenants represented by counsel default less often, receive better settlements, and win more often at trial.”
The need to provide indigent tenants with legal assistance in these proceedings has been on the City’s radar for at least a decade. The New York County Lawyers’ Association, in fact, published a report in 2006, which recommended, among other reformations, that the City establish a right to counsel for indigent tenants and homeowners in Housing Court as a tool to be used in the fight against homelessness. Several non-profit organizations have sprouted in New York City to address this need in particular. The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, for example, was founded in June of 2014—two months after Intro 214 was first introduced to the City Council—and has been advocating for the bill to be revised to protect tenants earning incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.
Intro 214 offers a remedy to the insufficient-counsel crisis at a cost. Intro 214 would establish a new “civil justice coordinator,” who would be appointed by the commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to establish and implement the new program. The program established pursuant to Intro 214 would require the civil justice coordinator to work with the New York City Bar Association in the development of a plan that involves the use of private counsel’s legal services. The provision of these additional legal services to low-income households facing eviction could save the City more than $50 million annually in homeless shelter costs, but the cost of the additional free representation would cost the City between $150 million and $250 million annually, which, according to an estimate provided by the Independent Budget Office, would tack on a net annual cost to the City’s budgetary bill that could reach amounts in excess of $200 million.
Thirty-eight of the 51 City Council members and Public Advocate Letitia James have signed on as co-sponsors of Intro 214, which was first referred to the Committee on Courts and Legal Services in March of 2014 and was re-referred to the Committee in February of 2015.
City Council: Stated Meeting Int. 0214-2014 (Mar. 26, 2014).
By: Jessica Soultanian-Braunstein (Jessica is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2015)