Council Bill Would Guarantee Right to a Lawyer in Housing Court

Every day, hundreds of people flock to Housing Court in New York City’s five boroughs to fight evictions and push their landlords for repairs—and the vast majority don’t have a lawyer representing them. 

In criminal cases, legal counsel is a constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment, but for civil cases, such as evictions, it’s not guaranteed. As a result, approximately 90% of tenants go into Housing Court without legal representation, while 98% of landlords go in with attorneys. And in 2013, nearly 30,000 families were evicted, according to Rent Guidelines Board figures.

“When a tenant walks into [the] building they’re already at a tremendous disadvantage,” city Comptroller Scott Stringer remarked after touring Bronx Housing Court. 

Housing Court is a complicated affair. Missing one piece of paperwork or being a day late for a deadline can mean that a tenant loses a case automatically. Many do not know their rights when it comes to eviction. Often, landlords and management companies will intimidate tenants into signing agreements or settlements, telling them that they are likely to lose. Unfortunately, hiring lawyers is expensive, and free legal help is hard to come by in the city. 

Intro 214, a bill pending in the City Council, would increase the amount of legal help available. Sponsored by Vanessa Gibson (D-Bronx), Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), and 32 other Councilmembers, it would require the city to spend over $100 million on legal aid for tenants, and make New York the first U.S. city to establish a right to counsel in eviction cases. Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the New York State’s highest court, has called the idea “civil Gideon,” referring to Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision that guaranteed criminal defendants’ right to a lawyer.

The city is currently spending $13 million a year on legal aid for those facing eviction, an amount Mayor Bill de Blasio doubled as part of his affordable-housing strategy.

Supporters of the bill argue that helping tenants fight eviction would actually help save the city $143 million in funding for homeless shelters. According to the City Budget Office, about one-third of families that entered shelters between 2002 and 2012 had been evicted from private housing. 

A cursory glance at those present in Housing Court shows that the majority of tenants there are people of color, particularly women. What happens if they get evicted? The city estimates that 57% of the people in its homeless shelters are black and 31% are Latino, and most are women with young children. 

Housing Court is all the more confusing for tenants who do not speak English. “There was not a bilingual sign in the whole place,” Stringer said after his visit to Bronx Housing Court.  

The right to counsel is essential in leveling the playing field in a housing world where people of color are already vulnerable.

 

Zann Ballsun-Simms is a Met Council intern.