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In 2017, New York City became the first in the nation to enact a right to counsel in housing court disputes. Since then, the city has spent millions of dollars on civil legal services to ensure that low-income tenants have access to free legal representation.

Over the last few years, the city’s spending on civil legal aid has quadrupled from $40 million in fiscal year 2015 to $197 million in 2021. But, seemingly, the increased spending has had the desired effect. Eviction petitions filed citywide decreased from 230,100 in calendar year 2017 to 171,500 in 2019. Similarly, evictions conducted by city marshals declined from 21,100 in 2017, to 17,000 in 2019.

Then came the pandemic. With hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers potentially under threat of being displaced, the city has had to ramp up its budget and efforts to make legal assistance available to more renters in need – expanding the right to counsel (from a few zip codes), to all tenants making less than $25,760 a year.

With the U.S. Supreme Court blocking the federal eviction moratorium, and the state eviction ban ending in January, the city needs to brace for a possible unprecedented uptick in applicants. "It's clear that additional funding is needed to fund the city's right to counsel for tenants in eviction cases," said Marika Dias, managing director of the Safety Net Project, one of the city’s legal aid service providers. "Greater resources are needed to ensure that we have ample staffing levels and infrastructure to provide those high-quality legal services under right to counsel law."

Safety Net Project has around 36 full-time employees, providing eviction defense and legal services to renters in cases involving harassment by landlords, lack of repairs in residential buildings, as well as assistance to homeless people. "It really does have a life changing effect for New Yorkers to get that legal representation," said Dias.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson noted that the city government was committed to making housing-related civil legal aid available to low-income New Yorkers. "The Council will continue to fight for necessary resources to protect tenants as our housing crisis is expected to worsen significantly following the pandemic," Johnson said, before adding, “[but] we need our state and federal government to work with us.”

SOURCE: https://www.law360.com/articles/1407852/eviction-crisis-will-put-nyc-s-right-to-counsel-to-the-test (subscription required)