All tenants in New York City Housing Court now have a right to at least some legal assistance, with lower-income renters eligible for full representation from nonprofit attorneys through an initiative funded with $166 million in the latest budget.

David Brand

Outside Bronx Housing Court in August 2021.

As statewide eviction protections near a January expiration date, New York City officials and nonprofit legal providers are raising awareness about an expansive right-to-counsel law intended to help tenants hold onto their homes.

All tenants in New York City Housing Court now have a right to at least some legal assistance, with lower-income renters eligible for full representation from nonprofit attorneys through an initiative funded with $166 million in the latest budget. 

Roughly 71 percent of New York City tenants facing eviction received help from an attorney in Housing Court in April, May and June—the last three months of the 2021 fiscal year—according to a new report published Wednesday by the Human Resources Administration (HRA). The agency found that 42,265 New York City households were represented by or got support from a city-funded lawyer in the fiscal year that ended June 30—an 11 percent increase from the 2020 fiscal year, and a 33 percent spike compared to the last six months of 2019. During the 2013 fiscal year, just 1 percent of tenants had legal representation in Housing Court.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and administration officials say the program, which relies on a network of legal service providers, is a key intervention for stopping an eviction and preventing homelessness. About 84 percent of households represented by an attorney in Housing Court were able to remain in the homes last year, HRA found.

“This game-changing program has yielded staggering results—protecting families from harassment and providing legal services to all tenants facing eviction, cementing its status as a national model for increasing housing stability and preventing homelessness,” de Blasio said Wednesday.

The surge in representation last year came as COVID-related protections delayed pending evictions for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. At the same time, the pandemic fiscal crisis complicated the ability of many New Yorkers to pay their full rent, heightening their risk for future eviction and exposing them to money judgments that can devastate their credit. 

To qualify for full representation, households must earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($25,760 for a single person, and $53,000 for a family of four). Tenants who earn more and face eviction proceedings can also receive some free legal assistance from nonprofit providers through the city-funded initiative. New York City spent $136 million on tenant legal service programs last fiscal year.

Legislation that would raise the threshold for full representation to 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Line has stalled in the City Council.

But all tenants can get at least basic information about their rights, and providers say they will also make referrals to private attorneys. 

“We will provide legal information to any New Yorker regardless of income who wants that help but we can’t necessarily provide them representation,” said Mobilization for Justice supervising attorney Justin La Mort.

The city enacted the Housing Court right-to-counsel law in 2017 and began gradually rolling it out in a number of low-income zip codes each year before the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the city eliminated zip code-based screening and made free legal assistance available to all tenants—an expedited right to counsel expansion later codified by de Blasio and the City Council. 

The number of legal evictions in New York City have plummeted since the first COVID-related protections were put in place by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state court leaders last March. During the 2021 fiscal year, city marshals executed 245 evictions, compared to 2,507 in the 2020 fiscal year—nearly all occurring before the COVID shutdown—and nearly 17,000 in 2019.

But a law halting most nonpayment evictions expires Jan. 15 and state officials on Sunday stopped accepting new applications for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which provides relief funds to landlords whose low-income tenants owe rent due to the pandemic. State law has enabled tenants to stay their eviction proceedings simply by showing their ERAP submission in Housing Court.

There are currently 223,883 pending eviction cases in New York City, though an untold number have been resolved without the landlord and tenant informing the court, an Office of Court Administration spokesperson said Wednesday. Property owners filed 57,964 eviction cases last fiscal year, including nearly 20,000 in The Bronx, according to the HRA report.

With more eviction filings mounting, city officials have launched an awareness campaign to inform more tenants about their right to an attorney. The advertisements will direct renters to the Tenant Helpline, a year-old resource for people who are facing eviction proceedings or who are at risk of losing their homes. The helpline connects tenants with case managers and nonprofit legal providers that contract with the city to represent renters in Housing Court. To access the resource, tenants can call 311 and ask for “right to counsel.” 

“Right to Counsel keeps people in their homes,” said Ricardo Martinez Campos, the acting director of the Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants. “We are confident that this landmark program will continue to protect New York City tenants even if the state’s eviction moratorium expires in January.”