housing

Eviction Drop Fuels Push to Expand Free Housing Help for Low-Income NYC Tenants

The Right to Counsel law came too late to help Sandra Mitchell.
The Right to Counsel law came too late to help Sandra Mitchell. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Evictions dropped by nearly 20% last year in neighborhoods where low-income tenants received free, city-funded legal services, a new analysis found.

The reduction came in 20 zip codes targeted by the city’s 2017 Right to Counsel law, which is slated to expand free housing court legal services citywide by 2022.

Over the first two years of the program, evictions in the covered neighborhoods fell by a combined 29% — from 4,355 to 3,105, according to the analysis by the nonprofit Community Service Society.

Evictions decreased citywide by roughly 18% over the same time period — to about 16,200, according to the analysis. That’s down from a recent peak of nearly 29,000 evictions conducted by city marshalls in 2013, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s last year in office.

“Our findings show that the right to counsel law is an effective strategy for empowering tenants and addressing housing insecurity,” said Oksana Mironova, a housing policy analyst at Community Services Society.

Growing Tenant Protections

The group’s analysis used numbers posted online by the city, but differs slightly from the government’s figures because of different methods employed to weed out duplicates and account for other data irregularities.

Meanwhile, the City Council is considering expanding eligibility for the program as the city reports nearly 85% of tenants who got free lawyers under the law managed to stave off eviction.

THE CITY reported in May that some landlords are still aggressively pursuing evictions in areas covered by the Right to Counsel law.
THE CITY reported in May that some landlords are still aggressively pursuing evictions in areas covered by the Right to Counsel law. Photo: THE CITY

Tenants in rent-regulated apartments got a separate boost in June when Albany lawmakers passed a package of laws that redefines when and how landlords can raise the rent — contributing to the citywide decline in evictions, Mironova said.

The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act included measures that limit the ability of building owners to hike the rent after making structural improvements to an apartment or after a tenant moves out.

A number of other city-funded legal services help tenants fight evictions in neighborhoods that aren’t yet covered by Right to Counsel.

‘I Had to Go It Alone’

The Right to Counsel law was intended to even the playing field between tenants and their landlords in Housing Court battles.

It set the income eligibility limit for participation in the program at 200% of the federal poverty level — now roughly $26,000 for a single adult and $52,000 for a family of four.

Sandra Mitchell has been advocating for “universal access” to attorneys for low-income tenants, alongside nonprofit groups such as CASA and Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, since 2014. But for her, the Right to Counsel law came too late.

She was living on Kingsbridge Avenue in Riverdale six years ago when her landlord — who, she says, kept the building in a state of disrepair — tried to evict her.

Mitchell said training from the advocacy groups and meticulous record-keeping helped her stave off the false allegations that she owed rent — even without a housing lawyer.

But she said the experience left her so physically and emotionally depleted, that when the landlord kept harassing her, she gave up her Bronx apartment and moved into a women’s shelter in Washington Heights.

“I had to go it alone,” said Mitchell, 55. “Had I had an attorney to stand and advocate for me, I think I would still be living there.”

After two years in the shelter, Mitchell moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Fordham Heights using a city-issued housing voucher in November 2017.

Tenant rights organizers rally at City Hall before a vote on the Right to Counsel bill.
Tenant rights organizers rally at City Hall before a vote on the Right to Counsel bill, Feb. 24, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

That was just months after the legislation to gradually create universal access to lawyers passed.

The law first raised the number of zip codes covered to 15 — expanding on pilot projects that had been launched earlier by the de Blasio administration across a number of neighborhoods.

The program has since added 10 more zip codes — including portions of East New York in Brooklyn, East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, and Far Rockaway, Queens, in December.

Push to Expand

Andrew Scherer, policy direc­tor of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School, said housing courts across the country have been historically tilted in favor of landlords because many tenants can’t afford lawyers.

“It’s really, really difficult — close to impossible — for unrepresented people to navigate their way through housing court proceedings in any way, shape or form,” said Scherer, a longtime advocate of Right to Counsel. “It’s a complex body of law and in these proceedings almost all of the landlords are represented by counsel. So they’ve always been unfair.”

Nearly 58,000 low-income tenants have been provided with taxpayer-funded legal services in the first two fiscal years of the program, according to a report by the city’s Office of Civil Justice. Across both years, 84% of tenants with representation were able stay in their apartments, the report says.

Those numbers are driving proponents to push to expand the program by passing two pieces of legislation set to be discussed at a City Council hearing Monday morning.

One measure would expand the income eligibility to 400% of the poverty level, while another would mandate education efforts to inform tenants of their rights in Housing Court, including to free representation.

Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan)
Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“At this point someone earning minimum wage at the new [$15] rate in New York is going to be above 200% of the poverty level,” said Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), who sponsored the Right to Counsel legislation. “So we need to adjust that to keep up with the economic realities.”

The expansion of the city’s early work in providing free legal services cost $15 million in the first year after the law was passed. When the program reaches the entire city in 2022, it will cost an estimated $166 million annually, city officials said.

With potentially huge cuts facing New York City in the upcoming state budget, which is due April 1, discussions about expanding the program should wait until the spring, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks said.

But Banks called the results of the Right to Counsel law heartening.

“This is an area where the metrics clearly show success,” he said. “The shelter system is like the emergency room. This is preventative medicine — and it’s clearly working.”

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