In the three days before the final State of the City address before he faces re-election, Mayor de Blasio unveiled two major shifts to address critics of his housing policies. On Friday, he revealed a major shift toward lower-income families in the allocation of units to be created under his housing plan. And on Sunday he and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced they had agree to create a universal right to legal services for tenants facing eviction.
The starkly unequal playing field in housing court, where most landlords have lawyers and most tenants do not, has long infuriated advocates and was a focus of City Limits’ 2015 series on that court. The de Blasio administration has for years offered some funding for housing-court legal services but had resisted creating a universal right.
As City Limits reported in December, a majority of Councilmembers supported universal access but no vote had been scheduled. One hold-up was a concern about cost: The Independent Budget Office estimated in 2014 that the move could cost the city $100 million to $200 million annually, but a more recent estimate commissioned by the Bar Association found instead a $300 million net benefit to the city.
Yesterday the city announced a $93 million allocation to the program, which, according to the City Hall, “doubles the administration’s existing funding for tenant legal services.” That amount will be phased in over the next five fiscal years. The mayor’s statement went on: “Legal services have proven effective at reducing unlawful evictions and preventing displacement. Since beginning an unprecedented expansion of tenant legal aid two years ago, evictions have dropped by 24 percent.”
The lack of right to counsel and the relatively low number of units set aside for the poorest New Yorkers were major sticking points in the administration’s push to rezone up to a dozen city neighborhoods for more residential density. Other points of disagreement and discussion, like the creation of a citywide certificate of no harassment, remain.
The move was a hit with politicians and groups of many stripes, although some noted more work needing to be done:
The Right to Counsel Coalition, a gathering of legal and housing advocacy groups:
“Today’s agreement to pass legislation guaranteeing that the poorest New Yorkers have counsel in eviction cases is a model for the rest of the country, and an enduring legacy for future generations. The agreement is an example of what government can and should do to reduce economic inequality and treat all of the city’s residents with dignity and respect. … No one who faces eviction should be denied the benefits of legal help simply because he or she is too poor to pay for counsel. The Right to Counsel Coalition has fought long and hard for this measure that will giving families a fighting chance to remain in their homes and communities, stem the tide of gentrification and displacement, protect families from the devastating effects of eviction and homelessness and reduce public expenditures on the shelter system and the many long-term public costs associated with eviction and homelessness. … Today’s landmark agreement sends a strong message to the city’s poorest residents that their lives, homes and communities matter, that the city won’t stand by as they are forced to navigate the courts without representation and that they will be protected. Today is a huge step forward towards creating a more equitable and just city.
Chris Widelo, Associate State Director for AARP New York:
“This agreement represents a huge step towards making New York City a more fair and equitable place. It will prevent wrongful evictions and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in the process by keeping New Yorkers in their homes and out of the shelter system. AARP thanks the mayor, City Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson and the Council for coming together to protect New Yorkers by providing access to counsel.” (Preventing wrongful evictions can save city taxpayers $320 million a year. The $1,600-$3,200 per case price of full legal representation in housing court pales in comparison to the $36,000-a-year cost for each bed in a city municipal shelter – the destination for many wrongfully evicted tenants. Developing a single affordable housing unit costs over $250,000.)
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams
“Make no mistake, funding universal access to free legal services for tenants facing eviction in housing court is a game changer. In the ongoing struggle against bad-acting landlords seeking to price New Yorkers out of the city they love, the right to counsel makes a big difference. My administration has prioritized the fight against tenant harassment in Brooklyn through a variety of measures that have preserved the homes for hundreds of our neighbors, including innovative uses of civic technology as well as ongoing assistance through the volunteer support of our partners in the legal community. Still, we have far more work to do to address the affordable housing crisis facing families from Baychester to Bay Ridge, which is why this investment in helping to prevent unlawful displacement will fill a critical need. I thank Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito, Council Members Gibson and Levine, as well as our tireless advocates for making this dream a reality. Let us do all we can to protect every man, woman, and child from the fear of being displaced and harassed, while creating lasting communities in which we can all find a safe place to call home.”
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.:
“A ‘right to counsel’ for tenants in housing court has long been a priority of my administration. Today’s announcement is a victory for the elected leaders and advocates who have made the case that providing tenants with legal representation will help level the playing field between them and their landlords and, most importantly, keep New Yorkers in their homes. Research shows this proposal would be cheaper than funding shelter beds and other services for tenants who might otherwise become homeless. With several major rezonings under consideration across the five boroughs, including the administration’s proposal for the Jerome Avenue corridor, it is imperative that we provide tenants with the tools they need to stay in their communities during times of transformation. Recognizing a tenant’s ‘right to counsel’ in housing court is a tremendous step towards increased stability in our neighborhoods.
Council Member Jumaane D. Williams (D-Brooklyn), Deputy Leader and chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings:
“It is one thing to talk about the battle that may be impending with the Trump Administration, it is another to prepare for it with tools and resources. As chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, I commend the mayor on the announcement made today. It moves our city dramatically forward in helping keep New Yorkers in their homes. The lack of preservation of affordable units and insufficient investment in low-income construction are prime drivers of our record homelessness. Today, with the historic Right to Counsel being funded, and the addition of 10,000 units being steered to low and extremely-low income, we will help push back on flippant evictions and take a big step toward providing units of housing for those who need it most. No longer will low-income New Yorkers have to face the prospect of showing up to court with inadequate legal representation, just because of a financial burden. And as I and many others have argued for, deeper affordability has taken up more space in the mayor’s housing plan. In addition to thanking the mayor, kudos on the leadership of my colleagues, Council Member Mark Levine, who championed the Right to Counsel bill, and Council Member Vanessa Gibson, the co-sponsor. Today is a historic day for housing in this city. Lets keep the fight going.”
Councilmember Andrew Cohen of the Bronx:
“I have long been a supporter of a right to counsel for tenants in housing court. Until today, these individuals and their families fighting to stay in their homes faced bleak outcomes, as most could not afford legal representation in housing court. Many facing eviction had no alternative but to enter the shelter system, funded at city taxpayer expense.”
Giselle Routhier, Policy Director for the Coalition for the Homeless:
“The mayor and Council speaker’s laudable initiative to guarantee a right to counsel for low-income tenants in housing court is a significant victory for the thousands of New Yorkers who are wrongfully evicted each year. Eviction remains a leading cause of homelessness and this critical step will substantially reduce the number of families that fall into homelessness. The city is making impressive progress in homelessness prevention—but that is only one-half of the equation. Until there is a realistic housing production and placement plan that gives homeless families a way out of shelters and into permanent housing, including a much-needed increase in placements into NYCHA public housing, homelessness in New York will continue at record levels.”