A Look at New York’s New Law Guaranteeing Access to Counsel in Eviction Proceedings

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By Natalie Tupta, Staff Writer

In August 2017, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio signed a new law that guarantees New Yorkers access to legal counsel in eviction proceedings.[1] This ordinance is the first of its kind in the United States, and it has drawn national attention since legal counsel is typically not guaranteed in civil cases.

Affordable, stable housing is one of New York City’s greatest challenges, as the City works to provide a safe home for its more than 8.5 million residents.[2] Nearly 2 million of those residents are living below the poverty line, making less than $24,036 for a family of four, and many others struggle to make ends meet.[3]

New York City is one of only three places in the U.S. that guarantee residents shelter, alongside Washington, D.C. and the state of  Massachusetts.[4] In New York, this guarantee stems from a 1979 class action lawsuit on behalf of all homeless men in New York, where the court interpreted Article XVII of the New York State Constitution, which says that “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions.”[5] The case resolved with a consent decree wherein the City and State had to provide shelter for homeless New Yorkers.[6]

Today, this means New York must maintain a shelter system capable of providing for the roughly 58,000 people who stay in shelters each night.[7] New York also maintains robust public assistance programs to assist low-income New Yorkers. In fact, the Human Resources Administration has an annual budget of nearly $10 billion,[8] and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has an annual budget of $903 million.[9]

The latest aspect of the fight for adequate housing for all in New York has been the recent adoption of the access to counsel ordinance. At the urging of tenants’ rights organizations and under the pressure to provide adequate housing for City residents, New York City Council and Mayor De Blasio enacted an ordinance that focuses the City’s resources on legal services to preserve housing, in an effort to minimize the number of people who need to utilize the shelter system.[10]

The new law says that the City commits to providing legal defense services to low-income New Yorkers facing eviction proceedings so that unlawful and unnecessary evictions can be avoided and families can remain in their homes, if possible.[11] Until the bill was passed, most tenants faced eviction proceedings alone, while their landlords almost always had legal counsel.[12]

Legal counsel will help tenants navigate the confusing legal systems, take advantage of procedural and substantive laws to present the best defense possible, access public assistance necessary to pay rental arrears, and connect with resources necessary to pursue economic and housing stability for tenants and their families.

The success of the access to counsel law will be significant to New Yorkers and to the legal community nationwide. If the access to counsel law is successful in New York, other jurisdictions may adopt similar laws to promote housing stability in their own communities. Also, public interest lawyers, who work to ensure equal access to justice for all, are eager to serve New Yorkers and to demonstrate how legal services for low-income New Yorkers improves economic stability for families.[13] If the access to counsel law is successful, it will become more apparent how equal access to justice improves the lives of hardworking, low-income families.

 

Sources


[1] “Mayor de Blasio Signs Legislation to Provide Low-Income New Yorkers with Access to Counsel for Wrongful Evictions,” New York City Office of the Mayor (Aug. 11, 2017) http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/547-17/mayor-de-blasio-signs-legislation-provide-low-income-new-yorkers-access-counsel-for#/0.

[2] “Current and Projected Populations,” NYC Department of City Planning (2017) https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/current-future-populations.page.

[3] Erin Durkin, “More poor people living in high poverty neighborhoods in NYC,” New York Daily News (June 7, 2017) http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/poor-people-living-high-poverty-neighborhoods-nyc-article-1.3227239.

[4] Josh Robin, “Gotham’s Right-to-Shelter Promise – and Its Homeless Problem,” The Daily Beast https://www.thedailybeast.com/gothams-right-to-shelter-promiseand-its-homeless-problem.

[5] NY CLS Const. Art. XVII, § 1; “The Callahan Legacy: Callahan v. Carey and the Legal Right to Shelter,” Coalition for the Homeless http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/our-programs/advocacy/legal-victories/the-callahan-legacy-callahan-v-carey-and-the-legal-right-to-shelter/.

[6] “The Callahan Legacy: Callahan v. Carey and the Legal Right to Shelter,” Coalition for the Homeless http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/our-programs/advocacy/legal-victories/the-callahan-legacy-callahan-v-carey-and-the-legal-right-to-shelter/.

[7] “Report of the Finance Division on the Fiscal 2018 Preliminary Budget and the Fiscal 2017 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report for the Human Resources Administration,” The Council of the City of New York (Mar. 27, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/17/opinion/new-priority-means-fewer-beds-in-citys-shelters.html.

[8] http://council.nyc.gov/budget/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2017/03/069-HRA.pdf.

[9] “Report of the Finance Division on the Fiscal 2018 Preliminary Budget and the Fiscal 2017 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development,” The Council of the City of New York (Mar. 15, 2017) http://council.nyc.gov/budget/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2017/03/806-HPD.pdf.

[10] Kelsey Ramírez, “It’s official: NYC mayor signs law promising lawyers to low-income tenants facing eviction,” Housing Wire (Aug. 11, 2017) https://www.housingwire.com/articles/40984-its-official-nyc-mayor-signs-law-promising-lawyers-to-low-income-tenants-facing-eviction.

[11] “Mayor de Blasio Signs Legislation to Provide Low-Income New Yorkers with Access to Counsel for Wrongful Evictions,” New York City Office of the Mayor (Aug. 11, 2017) http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/547-17/mayor-de-blasio-signs-legislation-provide-low-income-new-yorkers-access-counsel-for#/0.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

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