Recent clarifications and updates to city funding terms have alleviated some fears among legal service nonprofits while sparking others, as the organizations demand Mayor Eric Adams’ administration stop the contracting process and start over. 

Emma Whitford

A Right to Counsel NYC Coalition rally outside Brooklyn Housing Court in May 2023.

Legal organizations that represent New York City tenants are trying to keep up with evolving information about their future city funding, demanding more careful consideration of how long it takes to fight an eviction or win building-wide repairs.

In August, nonprofit providers including the Legal Aid Society protested the amount of money New York City was planning to reimburse them for each eviction case handled in housing court for the three years starting in mid-2024, deeming the rate of $3,063 “woefully insufficient”—less than half of their estimated per-case cost.

While this year’s city budget included a $20 million annual boost for tenant representation, including for the city’s landmark Right to Counsel program for no-cost eviction defense, organizations warned that the proposed reimbursement rate would stretch that new funding too thin.

Meanwhile, attorneys who help tenants sue landlords for building repairs raised an alarm, concerned that their future contracts would cap group cases—consolidated litigation for tenants across a building—at just 15 percent of overall legal services.

Not only do group cases give tenants more leverage, legal service providers said, but limiting them would strip attorneys of the flexibility they need to fairly advise their clients.

Now, changes and clarifications to city solicitations have alleviated some concerns, while sparking others.

Group case clarity

In response to attorney questions, the New York City Department of Social Services (DSS) has said that there is no cap on group casework in a given year for participants in the Anti-Harassment Tenant Protection (AHTP) program. However, only 15 percent of such case work can be rolled over from one year to the next.

“There is no enrollment limitation for new proceedings where full representation is being provided, including group proceedings,” DSS wrote in a Sept. 23 document circulated among providers. Reached for comment, the agency characterized this as a clarification, rather than a change to the AHTP solicitation first issued in August. 

Keriann Pauls, director of coalitions and resource management at TakeRoot Justice— part of the LEAP Coalition, a group of providers that contract with AHTP—said the news that group cases will not be capped is a relief. 

“That would have put us in the position of not being able to apply,” Pauls said. But the city’s terms are still confusing as drafted, she added, and even rollover caps are concerning since many of these cases take longer than a year to complete. The LEAP Coalition elaborated on this in a Sept. 15 protest letter to DSS. 

“Legal cases fighting against tenant harassment are complex, with many matters going to trial,” they wrote. “Very often these cases last much longer than a year, due to issues of the courts’ capacity, and other matters outside our organizations’ control.” 

Rate debate 

On the reimbursement front, rather than increase the initial rate of $3,063 per case, the city has opted to eliminate it—for both eviction and AHTP cases.

The updated solicitations do not change the amount of overall proposed funding—about $408 million over three years for eviction defense and $128.7 million for AHTP—but put the onus on providers to calculate how many cases they can take on.  

According to updated instructions issued Sept. 5 and 6 by DSS, the city will give “greater consideration” to proposals that “can maximize the number of clients to be served if awarded a contract.” The anti-eviction solicitation also states that the city anticipates 44,444 cases will be handled per year. 

“Addendum #2 [to the anti-eviction solicitation] eliminated any reference to a case rate,” the Legal Aid Society wrote in a Sept. 18 protest letter to DSS. “However, we believe the total funding available would not fully cover full legal representation for the 44,444 tenants in need outlined in the solicitation.” 

Providers estimate it costs $7,500 to adequately fund one eviction case, factoring in attorney, paralegal, social worker and supervisor salaries. This spring, they called for $461 million for a year of Right to Counsel. 

Established in 2017, the program provides free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction, and has had a high success rate of keeping people in their homes. But it has never been funded to cover everyone who qualifies. 

According to a tracker maintained by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, as of September, more than half of tenants sued for eviction between mid-January 2022 and late June—more than 33,000 households—had not been assigned lawyers. (The tracker does not account for tenant income, so some may not qualify for free representation.) 

Legal service providers said the absence of any case rate in the revised anti-eviction solicitation puts them in an uncomfortable position. The more funding they want to allocate to each case, the fewer cases they can take on. And providers that opt for fewer cases than their peers could be seen as less desirable to win a contract. 

“It’s extremely frustrating that in response to our concerns that the program on a per-case basis was inadequate, rather than improve it, what they’ve done is leave potentially more tenants without Right to Counsel,” said Rosalind Black, citywide housing director for Legal Services NYC (LSNYC). 

Looming deadline 

The deadline for providers to apply for city funding has been extended to Oct. 30, according to documents reviewed by City Limits. 

Meanwhile, the Legal Aid Society, along with LSNYC and the LEAP Coalition, are calling on the city to rescind its solicitations—also known as “Requests for x,” or RFxs—and go back to the drawing board. 

In September, the state court system released a report estimating that an experienced, full-time tenant attorney could reasonably take on 48 eviction cases per year

“Now, with the case study out, it definitely means more staffing is needed,” said Adriene Holder, chief attorney of the civil practice at the Legal Aid Society. 

This will require more funding, she added. And if funding isn’t immediately available, more time to gradually ramp up. But the city’s decision to set funding levels for three years before the caseload study came out has cut off the possibility to discuss this. 

“We can’t have these conversations because the RFx is out,” she said. 

Tenants with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition have joined these calls for a re-do. They are particularly concerned about a provision in the AHTP solicitation that diverts 8 to 10 percent of funding to tenant outreach—work they’d hoped to bid on separately, without cutting into funding for legal services. 

A City Council spokesperson also confirmed that Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala has sent a letter to DSS communicating providers’ concerns with the timing and requests in the solicitations, though they declined to provide a copy to City Limits. 

In a statement, DSS did not address calls to start the contracting process over, but emphasized this year’s $20 million funding boost. (The agency describes AHTP as part of Right to Counsel, while providers refer to them as distinct projects.)

“We have significantly increased funding to ensure the comprehensive and effective implementation of the Right To Counsel program, including anti-eviction prevention services which are critical to keeping at-risk New Yorkers stably housed,” a spokesperson said. 

DSS is “squarely focused” on ensuring that tenants get the “full scope of critical services they need and deserve through the released RFxs,” they continued. 

Joanna Laine, a tenant lawyer with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn and member of her union’s bargaining committee, said it would be shortsighted for the city to reward the providers who offer to take on the most cases. 

“By creating this race to the bottom they are essentially destroying Right to Counsel and ensuring that the lawyers who do the majority of the work are going to be too overwhelmed to fairly represent their clients,” she said. 

Laine and her colleagues are currently in contract negotiations demanding a cap of four new eviction cases per month—equivalent to 48 cases per year. 

Manhattan Councilmember Shaun Abreu, a former tenant lawyer himself, said case caps are needed. 

“The case cap is very, very important here because we want to have quality representation,” he said. “When I was a tenant lawyer I had 40-something cases in a given year and that felt just about right.” 

Abreu advocated for this year’s funding boost for tenant representation, but said the $20 million was never expected to cover the true cost of Right to Counsel. 

“That’s not to say that we do not want to cover the entire universe [of cases],” Abreu added. “We do. It’s just the [Adams] administration hasn’t given us the full funding. So now we’re scrambling and we have to deal with the cards we were dealt.”

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