De Blasio Backs Right-to-Counsel Bill

At a February 12 rally before an overflow crowd at Edward A. Reynolds High School on the Upper West Side, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he had reached an agreement with the City Council on a bill to provide free legal representation for all lower-income people facing eviction proceedings in Housing Court. The measure would cover people with an annual income less than twice the federal poverty level ($48,500 for an family of four). 

The agreement came after a three-year campaign by the New York City Coalition for a Right to Counsel in Housing Court to enact Intro 214-A, a bill sponsored by Councilmembers Mark Levine of Manhattan and Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx. The coalition comprised more than 100 people and groups, including former state chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, law-school professors, labor unions, and community groups such as CASA in the Bronx.

At a hearing last fall, the de Blasio administration had expressed support for the bill’s concept but skepticism about how it could be paid for. Both the mayor and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito credited pressure from the community in overcoming obstacles. “We heard from 42 Councilmembers and the grass roots,” de Blasio explained.

“When every low-income tenant has access to an attorney it will be a game changer for this city—one that will reverberate across the country,” Levine said in a statement. “New York City is now the first place in America to take this dramatic step.”

“This will prevent tens of thousands of evictions and all the devastation they cause, especially children, seniors, and others with special needs,” declared Jenny Laurie, director of Housing Court Answers, which provides training and information for unrepresented litigants in Housing Court. ”We applaud the mayor and the City Council for expanding civil justice at a time when the national direction is going the other way.”

Being able to have a lawyer, noted Adriene Holder, attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Division, will “mean everything to our clients.”  Implementing the program, she added, “will be a big project, but that’s a good problem to have.”

“I can’t express the exuberance and joy that tenants will now have legal representation and an opportunity to level the playing field,” said Carmen Vega-Reyes, a CASA leader. “It’s a strong message the landlords not to come after tenants for frivolous court proceedings.”  

Evictions in the city have decreased by 24 percent since de Blasio took office three years ago. The city has increased funding for civil legal services more than tenfold, to $62 million in the coming year; issued much more generous rent-arrears grants to stop evictions; and the Rent Guidelines Board has frozen rents on stabilized apartments since October 2015.