Senior Urban Planner•
March 26, 2023
REBNY thanks the Council for the opportunity to submit comments regarding the implementation and expansion of the city’s Right to Counsel Program.
REBNY supports expanding the Right to Counsel Program. Regardless of why a tenant is in Housing Court, having equal access to legal representation is important. According to a 2018 paper “Protect Tenants, Prevent Homelessness” from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “[t]here is not enough affordable and available housing for America’s millions of low-income renters…. The lack of affordable housing causes housing instability for low-income renters and leads to increased risk of eviction.” A key recommendation from that paper, based on evidentiary practice, is that guaranteeing counsel in housing cases leads to more families staying in their homes.
The Regional Planning Association found that less than 2% of owners are “bad landlords.” These bad actors are defined as having high eviction rates and over 10 housing code violations, which indicate a repeated pattern of harassment and neglect. The majority of those impacted by poor behavior are also low income and geographically concentrated, with 43% of people affected by bad landlords living in the Bronx.
The existing “Right to Counsel” program – enacted in 2017 and the first of its kind in the country – has been critical in decreasing evictions. In the areas where the program is offered, it is attributed for the majority of the decrease in evictions in those zip codes. According to the Rent Guidelines Board 2022 Income and Affordability Study, it is estimated that 84% of households facing eviction in Housing Court who had counsel avoided eviction. The RTC program, which was being phased in zip code by zip code, achieved full implementation in Jun 2021.
In FY 2021, RTC legal assistance was provided to 42,265 households in NYC for tenant issues such as eviction, disrepair, and landlord harassment. Despite the number of eviction filings falling by approximately 49,000 during FY 2021, the number of households receiving City-sponsored legal services increased 11% compared to FY 2020, and 79% compared to FY 2017 (prior to the formal launch of the RTC program).
REBNY supports the City Council’s efforts to ensure universal access to legal services and adequate time to secure counsel when necessary. Resolution 0345 is in support of a proposed bill before the State Legislature that would establish a New York state office of civil representation to provide access to legal services in eviction proceedings. The resolution would require the court system to mandate adjournments until a tenant has been able to secure an attorney and it could help pace cases to attorney capacity. The RTC program has proven that when provided with legal services, tenants are able to remain housed and avoid eviction at much higher rates. It is estimated that the number of tenants in housing court rose from 1% in 2013 to more than 30% in 2019. Moreover, the proportion of households who were threatened with eviction rose from 9% in 2020 to 13% in 2021.
REBNY supports efforts at the state level to expand access to legal services for those at risk of housing instability. As much as eviction cases harm tenants, moratoriums during the pandemic also increased the amount of rental arrears, which left owners, nonprofit and for-profit affordable housing owners alike, facing financial distress. Since the eviction moratorium ended, New Yorkers are facing as estimated $3.3 billion in back rent. With this in mind, REBNY also encourages the office of civil representation to identify sources of public assistance that may be accessed by tenants in need to address the outstanding arrears if assistance in paying rent is necessary on an on-going basis.
Resolution 0499 would require that any party eligible under local law for free legal counsel for an eviction proceeding, that has made a good faith effort to secure such counsel, may be granted an adjournment by the court for additional time to secure counsel. REBNY supports this resolution so long as that time is reasonable and certain. The backlog of eviction cases coupled with staffing shortages have left tenants otherwise eligible for counsel, denied. Legal services NYC had to decline 475 cases in the Bronx in March 2022. Tenants unable to obtain counsel through no fault of their own should be eligible for additional time to secure such legal services for an eviction case. The RTC program has led to a decrease in 30% of eviction filings since its inception. Additionally, there should be additional investments in tools further upstream to ensure stability for the thousands of households on the brink of homelessness. A lawyer near the end of that process is helpful but homelessness is a complex problem that requires multiple modes of intervention at the city, state, and federal level to combat. This includes efforts to increase the supply of all types of housing.
Thank you for the consideration of these points.