Mayor DeBlasio has signed a legislative initiative known as “right to counsel.” This program offers free legal counsel for lower-income tenants who are in the process of being evicted. Those eligible must reside in one of 10 local zip codes and have annual household income of under $50,000 for a family of four. The city is entering contracts with providers of legal counsel who will represent these individuals. The program is being gradually expanded and will be fully implemented within five years. According to WNYC New York, this program is unprecedented in the U.S. The Constitution of the U.S. guarantees counsel for those facing criminal charges, but not in these civil cases that occur in housing court. The city has experienced increases in the rent throughout the market that has created difficulty for lower income residents. Supporters of the program want to prevent unfair evictions.
In 2013, merely 1% of those in court for evictions had a lawyer; however, this percentage has now surpassed 27% and will continue to increase over the next couple years. Jordan Dressler, the current Civil Justice Coordinator, explained that the majority of landlords traditionally had legal counsel. The program has had some challenges with limited space at the housing court in the Bronx for attorneys to meet with their clients privately, so many of these interactions are held in narrow hallways near the courtrooms. The annual program budget will be approximately $155 million once it expands citywide.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the head of the Judiciary Committee, has identified a shortage of judges throughout the city. The New York State Constitution allows legislative action to add additional judges up to a ratio of one per 50,000 residents. Based on these guidelines the Bronx courts, which thus far are the busiest, could receive an additional three judges. The Bronx reportedly had 88,000 filings over the last year, according to Court Administration data. Dinowitz says that backlogs exist and that they seek to make the additions soon.
As the new program continues, the city may increase awareness of the availability by direct mailings to tenants. Meanwhile, landlords have expressed concerns from their perspective with many tenants now having lawyers involved in the eviction proceedings that the number of appearances in court will increase. They feel it will result in longer lapses in receiving rent payments that landlords need to pay taxes, mortgages, and heating costs. Since 1994, the Department of Homeless Services stated the number of individuals using shelter services rose 115%, while the number of lower cost and rent-controlled units declined. During this period, many low to middle-income residents have become homeless. In 2016, households of three people earning $24,500 annually could afford rental costs of $613 per month, which is less than half of the $1,317 median rental costs within the city.
It is clear that there is a genuine need for legal representation for low-income residents facing eviction. The law, however, is nascent. It will be some time before we know the extent of its impact on the rate of evictions in the city.