Mark Levine

Emil Cohen/City Council

The Council is considering two bills written by Manhattan member Mark Levine to expand on the 2017 Right to Counsel law.

When New York City’s Right to Counsel law, also known as Universal Access to Counsel, which gives low-income tenants facing evictions free legal support in housing court passed in 2017, advocates expected a drop in evictions. And that has occurred: Evictions are 40 percent since 2013, and dropped 15 percent last year alone.

According to former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who testified at a City Council hearing on Monday, the effects have been overwhelming. “Eighty-four percent of people who are represented are able to stay in their homes,” he said, “and we have reduced the entry into homeless shelters because of the law.”

What advocates did not expect was the impact the bill’s passing would have on a national level.

“It was actually San Francisco [that] reached out to us and they said we’re so inspired if New York can do this, so can we,” Susanna Blankley, the Coalition Coordinator for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, says. “And [that] was the impetus for us kind of really understanding that our win had national implications. And then we put out a campaign tool kit to help people in other cities run campaigns”

After the Right to Counsel law passed in New York, it created a ripple effect. So far, Washington, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Newark, San Antonio, and Philadelphia have established the right to counsel laws, programs or initiatives. Other cities, such as Cleveland, Boston, Seattle, Detroit, Los Angeles and Santa Monica are considering or pushing for right to counsel in their respective communities.  

John Pollock, staff attorney for the Public Justice Center and the Coordinator of the National Coalition for the Civil Right to Counsel, said the advocacy behind the Right to Counsel policy differed from politics as usual. He explained generally advocacy groups use the legal path to justify why a policy should be mandated, but New York City set a different example. 

“The victories we’ve had, have always been by the legal community by lawyers and by legal services programs and nonprofits. So to see this coming from the community directly, that was a completely different model. I think having that happen in that fashion in New York was really served as a model for a lot of other places,” said Pollock. “It cannot be overstated the importance that community organizing played in the passage of the right to counsel.”

“It’s part of the discussion right now in terms of the, one of the two bills is to address, providing funding for the organizers to ensure that the right is implemented. And I think organizers and other cities saw what the organizing had done and realized this is something that can really transform the entire power dynamic between landlords and tenants. And if you look at Newark, San Francisco, other places like the organizing was at the center of everything that was done.” 

Pollock said the momentum for the right to counsel will not stop anytime soon because housing issues such as the lack of affordable housing, heavily rent-burdened household incomes, displacement, gentrification and the criminalization of homelessnes, have not comprehensively addressed by federal and local governments across the country. 

“The core of the problem: they’re spending such a disproportionate percentage of their income on housing and they’re spending it on housing that’s often substandard. They’re not even paying to get great housing. And if you live in substandard housing, that’s going to lead to a whole cascade of other problems; you’re going to have health issues, you’re going to have safety issues, school issues, days missed at work. People are forced into that because they can’t afford anything but substandard housing — assuming they can afford anything at all in some of these cities, [and sometimes] they can’t even afford substandard housing and they’re pushed out.” 

Pollock said there are three bills related to housing right to counsel bills that have been introduced in Capitol Hill so far and he is expecting additional legislation soon as well. 

Among the Democratic presidential candidates, Pollock says Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and businessman Tom Steyer have explicitly called for a right to counsel in eviction cases. Candidates Senator Amy Klobuchar have proposed establishing federal funding to provide some kind of access to legal counsel and former Iowa Mayor Pete Buttigieg plans on showing support to states that are working towards establishing legal remedies for housing issues such as evictions, including civil Gideon laws (a policy based on 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case whose decision provided for mandatory criminal representation for the poor). 

A few days ago, former Vice President Joe Biden released his housing plan where he proposed the enactment of the Legal Assistance to Prevent Evictions Act of 2020, a bill sponsored by Reps. Jim Clyburn and David Price, would provide federal funding for cities/states programs that increase tenant representation and the right to counsel. And Pollock says, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has made references to “pilot program for legal-advice services” but did not share details. 

Back in New York, advocates are supporting two new pieces of legislation that calls for a two-part expansion plan of the city’s RTC policy. The coalition behind the passage of the legislation, Right to Counsel, says in order for the impact to grow further the program must expand to be more inclusive for geographic and economic groups across the city. 

The bills, Intro 1104 and Intro 1529, were both introduced by Councilmember Mark Levine. Intro 1104 would double the income levels that are eligible for the Universal Access to Counsel program from 200 percent, which is an estimated $43,440 for a three-person household, of the Federal Poverty Level to 400 percent, which is estimated at $86,880 for a three-person household. 

Intro 1529 requires the Office of the Civil Justice coordinator to work with community groups to bring engage and educate tenants from different communities that could benefit from the Right to Counsel law.

The current RTC law mandates a gradual expansion of the program by five zip codes each year. It currently serves Bronx zip codes 10457, 10467, 10468, 10462, 10453; Brooklyn zip codes 11216, 11221, 11225, 11226 and 11207; Manhattan zip codes 10026, 10027, 10025, 10031, 10029 and 10034; Queens zip codes 11433, 11434, 11373, 11385 and 11691; and Staten Island zip codes 10302, 10303, 10314 and 10310. 

The zip codes are chosen based on coordinated consultations between the Office of Civil Justice, New York City Housing Court, legal service providers and tenant advocates who analyze factors such as shelter entries, number of rent-regulated housing, number of eviction proceedings and if there is an existing legal services programs. 

According to the de Blasio administration, 400,000 New Yorkers facing eviction are expected to receive legal assistance through a fully phased in Universal Access law by 2022, with annual funding for legal services for tenants increasing to $166 million. The city says there has been a 24 percent increase in served households compared to last year and a 74 percent increase compared to 2017, when the initiative was first launched. 

The current law assists between 60 to 65 percent of those people in housing court. Blankley says by raising the income threshold, an estimated 90 percent of people in housing court will become eligible.  This is necessary in part, she says, because the rise in the state minimum wage has pushed many renters’ incomes up–though not enough for them to be able to afford a lawyer on their own.

“We have led the way and now is the time to fill in the gaps. [Intro] 1104 is so important,” Lippman testified on Monday. “You know there are people [whose income] is too high for legal services and yet cannot afford a private attorney. That has to change.”

“Intro 1529 is equally important,” he said. “[The city] can avoid half these cases before they even get to the courts. We have to continue to lead the way.”

Providing lawyers won’t solve all the flaws with the housing-court system, however. During the hearing, Anthony Cannataro, Administrative Judge of the Civil Court and Justice of the State Supreme Court, said the courts had their hands full and would look to the state government to address state court administrative concerns. 

Levine’s two proposals have 36 cosponsors, more than enough to become law. So, the onus is on Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Mayor de Blasio to decide what to do. The City Council will vote on both Right to Counsel bills this legislative year.