Opinion

Right to Counsel a victory for New York City tenants

William Alatriste/New York City Council

Every elected official knows constituents whose stories they will never forget. One of the most lasting for me is of a woman – I’ll call her Maria – who came to my office in tears after receiving an eviction order. She had been injured stepping on a broken stair in her apartment building, lost her job as a result, and was ultimately taken to court by a notoriously aggressive landlord for being unable to pay her rent. Without the money to afford a lawyer, she was forced to represent herself. Predictably, she ended up like thousands of other New Yorkers, forced from her home.

There’s hardly a member of the New York City Council who couldn’t share a similar story. That’s why today we will vote to make New York the first city in the nation to guarantee free legal representation for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction in housing court. The bill we are voting on today – Intro 214b – is expected to pass by a wide margin, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has already signaled his support. That means that beginning today, no low-income city resident will lose a home because he or she can’t afford a lawyer.

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The bill’s passage will mark the beginning of a new era for tenants in this city.

Historically, fewer than 10 percent of tenants have had an attorney during an eviction proceeding, compared to nearly 100 percent of landlords. The results were predictably devastating – over 22,000 evictions a year, landing tens of thousands of New Yorkers in our city’s homeless shelters and on the streets. Among them are many who, like Maria, might still be in their homes if only they had an attorney.

This profound lack of justice is what led me and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson to work alongside the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition for the past three and a half years to make New York City the first place in America to provide an attorney to all low-income tenants facing eviction.

The impact of this bill isn’t just theoretical. In the last three years, the City Council and its Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, together with Mayor de Blasio, have increased by tenfold the amount of resources the city allocates towards anti-eviction legal services. The results have been dramatic: evictions have dropped by 24 percent since 2014 – keeping thousands of families in their homes and out of shelters. It’s this kind of impact that convinced no fewer than 43 Council Members to co-sponsor the bill. And it’s the kind of impact that led Mayor de Blasio to make a historic commitment of $155 million to take the program to full scale.

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Other cities are already following New York’s lead. Similar measures expanding access to counsel are being considered in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere. As the Trump administration works to cut off aid to the poorest among us, it’s inspiring to see the leaders of our cities standing up for the rights of the most vulnerable.

Ultimately, New York will save money from this measure; it costs about $2,500 to provide a tenant with an attorney for an eviction proceeding, while we spend over $45,000 per year to shelter a homeless family. But the leaders of our city did not come together on this issue because it would save money. We came together because this is the moral thing to do. New Yorkers have rights, and the right to a fair hearing in court is one of them. Tragically, Maria wasn’t granted that right. Today we go a long way to ensure that the kind of injustice that befell her will become a thing of the past.

Mark Levine is a New York City Councilman representing the 7th Council District in Northern Manhattan.  

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