New York City is setting unreasonable expectations for nonprofit attorneys tasked with staving off evictions across the city, according to a protest letter submitted Thursday by the Legal Aid Society.

Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photog

A tenant advocate cheers the Right to Counsel policy at the bill signing in 2017.

New York City is setting unreasonable expectations for nonprofit attorneys tasked with staving off evictions, according to a protest letter submitted Thursday by the Legal Aid Society and obtained by City Limits. 

The organization, one of the largest representing tenants in the city, is reacting to a solicitation issued this month by the Human Resources Administration (HRA). The request previews funding and caseload targets for the three years starting in July 2024, including how much the city plans to pay per eviction case—up to $3,036.

This per-case funding level, equating to $408.5 million over three years, is “woefully insufficient,” the Legal Aid Society wrote to HRA on August 10, adding that the organization has already been “forced to subsidize the program with other funds.”

The solicitation at issue is for organizations participating in New York City’s Right to Counsel program, established in 2017 and billed as the first in the nation to provide free “universal access” to eviction defense for those eligible

The majority of low-income tenants served are able to stay in their homes, yet lawyers have struggled in recent months to keep up with demand, prompting calls to slow down case calendaring and boost funding to as much as $461 million this year alone. 

Evictions have yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, but have increased considerably in the past year. Meanwhile, the city is grappling with record-breaking levels of homelessness, and a dearth of low-cost apartments. 

“The Legal Aid Society’s protest letter raises serious concerns about the future of the right-to-counsel for tenants, a proven strategy for preventing evictions, at a time when rents are skyrocketing in New York City,” Comptroller Brad Lander said in a statement to City Limits Friday.

The new solicitation increases caseload expectations, making poor use of a roughly $20 million funding boost secured in this year’s city budget, said Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at Legal Aid. 

“What the city has done is added in that $20 million but radically increased the number of deliverables we’re supposed to do,” she said. 

The new funding should instead help cover the true cost of the caseloads providers already have, Goldiner added. Legal services providers have testified to multiple factors driving up the time spent on a typical eviction case, including enhanced tenant protections, attorney resignations, and an influx of new, less-experienced staff. 

“We can’t ethically give our attorneys more cases than they can reasonably handle, and do justice to the client,” Goldiner said. “But the city’s acting like housing court cases are just widgets—how many widgets can you churn out? And the important thing is to churn out as many widgets as possible, not get a quality result.” 

HRA’s 12-page “Anti-Eviction: Full Legal Representation” solicitation document, also known as a “Request for x,” or RFx, calls on legal services providers to offer full legal representation in 44,444 cases annually for three years, with about $136.2 million in funding per year. 

Right to Counsel contracts that expired this June were worth about $112 million, according to a City Limits review. They included full representation requirements of 32,900 cases, plus further service targets that could be met either through full representation or brief legal advice to a tenant facing eviction.

Legal Aid’s protest letter this week also references an ongoing study by the state’s Office of Court Administration that will soon establish a “uniform case standard” for Right to Counsel, laying out the number of cases one attorney should handle each year. 

HRA’s solicitation states that contracting legal services providers “would be required to comply with any caseload standards introduced during the contract term.” 

But this is not a reasonable expectation given the funding set forth, according to Legal Aid’s letter to the city. 

HRA “irrationally and unfairly requires that all providers comply with a soon-to-be released, unknown case standard, regardless of whether the new standard dramatically changes the cost of the work,” the organization wrote. 

The city is further asking unionized providers to share copies of Collective Bargaining Agreements that “may impose limitations and impact any program expectation listed within the solicitation.”

“We are concerned that this new request will be used to penalize unionized responders,” Legal Aid wrote.

The organization is now seeking a meeting with HRA and other legal services providers to discuss the current solicitation, and is urging the agency to re-issue it with changes. “If HRA does not properly amend the solicitation, the procurement will lead to the implementation of an unlawful program,” Thursday’s letter states. 

Reached for comment, an HRA spokesperson said that the agency is using every tool at its disposal to make sure that New Yorkers are “getting the full scope of critical services they need and deserve, including reliable access to full representation for New Yorkers facing eviction.”

The city must hold providers accountable, HRA continued, with mechanisms like a possible 10 percent funding cut for failure to meet certain contract obligations.

“As we have significantly increased investments in our first-in-the-nation Right to Counsel program, we are also ensuring we have strong accountability mechanisms in place for the effective and comprehensive delivery of services for at-risk tenants,” the spokesperson said. “As always, we appreciate any feedback from our stakeholders.”*

The agency’s solicitation notes that the citywide expansion of Right to Counsel sped up in 2021, in response to the pandemic, and that HRA’s Office of Civil Justice (OCJ), tasked with administering the program, understood this might not be the “smoothest” process.

OCJ is “keenly focused on addressing the needs of those facing eviction in Housing Court” and will continue to work with providers and the courts, the document states. 

*This story has been updated with comment from HRA.

The Legal Aid Society – Protest Letter to HRA 8.10.23 by City Limits (New York) on Scribd