Tenants Voice Hope and Concern at the Right to Counsel Hearing

Activists, lawyers and tenants gathered at the steps of City Hall this morning to show their support for proposed city legislation 214 A, which would grant the right to legal counsel for low income tenants in the city’s housing courts.

Under the proposed bill, residents who make up to 200% of the federal poverty income standards would be guaranteed an attorney by the state. This would provide counsel for a single person making about $21,000 a year, and a family of four making $40,000 a year.

The bill was introduced in 2014 by city council members Mark Levine of northern Manhattan and Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, and is now co-sponsored by 43 of 51 council members across five boroughs. If passed, it could help many thousands of residents escape eviction, harassment, and poor or unsafe housing conditions.

Gibson is a tall woman, who stood far higher than the podium microphone at the press conference before the hearing. Still her strong voice could be heard over the vocal crowd of supporters and sirens passing by. She said that there are 11,000 families facing eviction today in the Bronx alone, and “when you give families legal help, you give them power, you give them rights.” A chorus of cheers erupted behind her.

Over eighty people signed up to speak on panels at the hearing on Monday, and their testimonies were overwhelmingly in support of the bill. Today, only about ten percent of tenants who find themselves at housing court in New York are represented by an attorney, though multiple studies have shown that having one drastically increases a tenant’s chances of winning and staying in their apartment.

Randy Dillard, a resident of the Bronx who attended the hearing, had a Section 8 voucher to help him with rent until his building failed a Housing Quality Standards inspection in 2009. Soon after he was taken to court by his landlord for unpaid rent.

He recalls his first visit up to the fifth floor of the Bronx Housing Court. “I was frightened. Without a legal mind by my side, I didn’t know about stipulations, I didn’t know about holdovers. I had no answers.”

He says his teenage daughter’s grades slip from Bs to Ds as she worried about the real possibility of moving to a shelter and being teased and talked about in school. He was eventually connected with Part of the Solution (POTS), a charitable organization in the Bronx, who helped find him an attorney and remain in his home.

Dillard was one of the lucky ones. For many tenants, the threat of ending up in a housing shelter is a reality if they lose their case in court. According to the the Right to Counsel Coalition, there are currently 63,000 people in homeless shelters in New York, and 23,000 of them are children.

The city has already spent over $60 million providing legal counsel to tenants, and the program proposed by the bill would cost the city over $100 million annually. However, proponents of the bill say that the initial cost of counsel would be offset over time by reducing shelter costs and ensuring that more New York residents stay in affordable housing. Estimates of potential savings vary. A 2016 report published by the law firm Stout, Risius and Ross with the Independent Budget Office (IBO) calculated thesavings from reduced shelter use to be as much as $251 million dollars, with about $53 million going directly back to the city, if families facing eviction are kept out of the already stressed system.

Martin Needleman is the co-executive director and head counsel with Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, a legal firm that focuses on social justice issues like housing. He was there on the City Hall steps supporting the bill, and has 43 years of legal experience in Brooklyn. He believes that giving tenants an option is “giving them power, giving them rights” and should become a permanent part of the New York State constitution.

The council members and the bill’s supporters are appealing to Mayor Bill de Blasio to pass and fund intro 214 by the end of 2016.