“What we need to do is to ensure that, no matter how much money you’re making, you can access a free attorney if you’re at risk of eviction,” North Brooklyn Councilmember Lincoln Restler said during an appearance on WBAI’s City Watch Sunday.

Bronx County Housing Court on January 14 2022

A North Brooklyn councilmember is urging New York City to establish a universal right to counsel for tenants in housing court, following the expiration of statewide eviction protections earlier this week.

Existing city law guarantees full, free representation for extremely low-income renters facing eviction and has been hailed as a crucial preventive measure for many New Yorkers at risk of of losing their homes. But the income threshold to qualify for a free attorney—200 percent of the federal poverty line—precludes far too many New Yorkers from the program, said Councilmember Lincoln Restler, who took office representing Brooklyn’s 33rd Council District on Jan. 1. Restler’s district includes all of Greenpoint, as well as parts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, Dumbo and other North Brooklyn neighborhoods.

“What we need to do is to ensure that, no matter how much money you’re making, you can access a free attorney if you’re at risk of eviction,” Restler said during an appearance on WBAI’s City Watch Sunday.

The existing income cap restricts the city’s right to counsel program to people earning 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which amounts to about $23,000 for an individual and less than $50,000 for a family of four. Tenants earning more have a right to some free legal assistance, but that may amount to a brief phone call with a nonprofit legal service provider.

“That basically means if you have two minimum-wage earners [in a household], you make too much money to be guaranteed a free lawyer by the city of New York. That’s not right,” Restler said.

A piece of legislation that stalled in the Council last year would raise the income threshold to 400 percent of the federal poverty line ($51,520 for an individual or $106,000 for a family of four). Restler said he is not at the point of introducing legislation to establish a universal right to counsel in housing court, but is talking with advocates about such a measure.

A report published in November 2021 by the Human Resources Administration (HRA) found that more than 70 percent of New York City tenants facing eviction received help from an attorney in Housing Court in April, May and June of last year.

The agency said 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 rise from the 2020 fiscal year, and a 33 percent increase compared to the last six months of 2019. Nearly 85 percent of households represented by an attorney in Housing Court were able to remain in the homes last year, HRA found.

The city budget includes $166 million to fund the program and expanding it would cost significantly more, but there is some precedent—San Francisco established a right to counsel for all tenants in Housing Court in 2018.

During the live interview Sunday, Restler also discussed a proposal to drive down rents on vacant residential and commercial spaces based on how long they remain empty. The 2020 “Lower Rent NYC” plan, a key part of his campaign for the Council seat, may be less feasible on the residential side because the vacancy rate has decreased since the depths of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, he said renters across New York City need additional protections—particularly in his district, where one in four tenants spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent.

The episode of City Watch also featured perspective on expiring eviction protections from Albany Law School Prof. Ted De Barbieri, who wrote about the path ahead in an op-ed for the Daily News earlier this month.

Earlier in the program, reporter Claudia Irizarry Aponte of the news site The City discussed the fatal fire that killed 17 people and displaced dozens more in Tremont on Jan. 9.

Listen to the episode here:

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