Why We Need the Right to a Lawyer in Housing Court

Earlier this year, I was assisting an elderly man who was being sued by his landlord for back rent in Brooklyn Housing Court. He had paid the rent and wasn’t getting services. His landlord is well known for trying to pick off longtime rent-stabilized tenants. He told me that he had come to court to answer the petition and get his lawyer. I asked him who had promised him a lawyer. He responded, “I’m a senior, so the court will give me one, no?”

No. Unlike in criminal cases, there is no right to a lawyer in a civil case. So if you are being sued by your landlord, you have to pay for one. If you don’t have the money to pay the $300 to $700 per hour that lawyers charge for these types of cases, you are on your own in court. You will probably lose.

Earlier this summer, the City Council and Mayor enacted Intro 746, which creates a civil-justice coordinator for the city. This office is designed to mirror the long-standing criminal-justice coordinator. Its job is to figure out how to close the gap between the civil legal needs of poor city residents and the availability of free or low-cost legal services. Those of us who help low and moderate-income tenants facing eviction know that justice gap is huge. We also know one way to close it: Give tenants in an eviction or termination case the right to counsel. 

Last year, City Councilmembers Mark Levine of Manhattan and Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx introduced a bill, Intro 214, which would provide the right to a lawyer for people facing the loss of their homes. In Housing Court, 95 percent of the tenants do not have a lawyer, while 90 percent of the landlords do. 

There are many reasons why tenants facing eviction should have the right to a lawyer. Last year, over 200,000 tenants were sued in nonpayment cases in Housing Court. The courts issued over 110,000 warrants of eviction, and close to 30,000 people were put out by marshals. We know from the city’s shelter intake statistics that thousands more left their apartments before the marshal came. 

Both recent and older research has shown that eviction causes profound and long-lasting damage to low-income people. Evicted tenants spiral through worsening housing situations, often moving to housing that is more expensive, is in worse condition, and has fewer protections. In New York City, this means that if a family of limited means is evicted from a rent-stabilized apartment, they will likely move into an unregulated, often illegal and crowded housing situation; pay a higher rent; and suffer from more days without heat, hot water, and other basic services. Broader effects include children’s schooling being disrupted, adults losing their jobs, and both suffering long-term psychological harm. Today, 60,000 people are sleeping in the city shelter system each night.  One-third of those came straight from an eviction; 60 percent came from rent-regulated or public housing. 

Most eviction cases are settled in the Housing Court hallways, not in front of a judge. Studies have shown that tenants without lawyers fare poorly because they are not used to advocating for themselves in a court setting, and they are intimidated by the procedures, terminology, setting, and court personnel. A study on Housing Court Answers’ Navigator project showed that most tenants who badly needed repairs, and those who had already paid part of the rent, never raised these two critical issues as defenses unless given assistance. A frequently cited study shows that tenants who had lawyers in Housing Court were more likely to show up in court than those who didn’t, had fewer judgments against them and fewer warrants of eviction, and won more repairs and more rent abatements. 

Why is it important to establish a right to counsel? The city’s current leadership believes that justice reserved for only those who can afford to pay for it is not justice. Mayor Bill de Blasio has appointed longtime Legal Aid Society head Steve Banks as commissioner for the city’s social services, and allocated millions of dollars for legal services. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, has championed the provision of counsel to poor people in other legal proceedings, most prominently those used to deport minor children. But what happens when we have a budget deficit? Or we have a mayor like Rudolph Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg? The funding for legal services will be cut. We need a right, like defendants have in criminal cases, so that all tenants who cannot afford a lawyer in an eviction case can get one, regardless of how the mayor feels about tenants. 

Is a right to counsel enough? No. Low-income tenants face displacement pressures and a housing market that is constantly moving out of reach. Many thousands of affordable units have been preserved, and evictions prevented, by tenant organizers and by case management services. Tenant organizers are a must for fighting harassment and displacement, while case managers are critically important for the vulnerable and isolated tenants, particularly seniors and the disabled.

 

Jenny Laurie is executive director of Housing Court Answers. It is a coordinator of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, which was formed to push for the adoption of Intro 214, along with Community Action for Safe Apartments, New York Law School’s Impact Center for Public Interest Law, and a group of legal-service and tenant-advocacy organizations. You can get your tenants association to endorse it, contact your Councilmember, and let the mayor know you support the right to counsel. Visit righttocounselnyc.org for more information.