Right to Counsel Means Fewer Evictions

Testimony by Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried
Before the New York City Council
Committee on Courts and Legal Services
Monday, September 26, 2016

My name is Richard N. Gottfried. I represent the 75th Assembly District in Manhattan, which includes the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Hellís Kitchen/Clinton, Midtown, and part of the Upper West Side and Murray Hill.

The rate of homelessness in New York City is rising, much to our shame. We see it every day. Estimates now stand at over 60,000 people in the shelter system and rising. Evictions of people from their homes is one main cause of homelessness. Providing low-income New Yorkers facing eviction with quality legal representation will help keep families, children and seniors in their homes. We should support the Right to Counsel bill, Intro. 214A introduced in the New York City Council by co-sponsors Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson.

An NYC Office of Civil Justice report shows that between 2013 and 2015, the city expanded access to legal representation in housing court by 26 percent, leading to a 24 percent drop in evictions. In 2013, only one percent of tenants went to housing court with legal representation. Now, a lawyer represents 27 percent of tenants facing eviction. Thatís an enormous improvement. But in contrast, landlords are almost always represented by lawyers, in over 90 percent of eviction cases. So we can and must do better. Thatís what this bill will do.

As my district and many other communities continue to gentrify, many low-income tenants are receiving eviction notices. Many have lived in their rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments for at least 30 to 40 years and never had to appear in housing court. When they receive an eviction notice, they are frightened of losing their home. And often, overburdened legal services organizations cannot provide a lawyer for the tenant.

What happens in housing court to cause unrepresented tenants to be more likely to experience eviction? When the tenant arrives at housing court, no one explains the process. Everything proceeds in a blur. A senior having difficulty hearing the court clerkís questions may be assumed to have diminished ability to understand and possibly referred to Adult Protective Services. At one point, the tenant is expected to negotiate in the hallway with an unfriendly landlord lawyer usually in a hurry to get to his or her next case. The judge mentions his impossible caseload during the proceeding. Without legal counsel, where is the tenantís right to equal protection of the law in this scenario?

A New York City Bar Association sponsored financial projection concludes the city will save $320 million dollars a year with the adoption of the right to counsel legislation.

An estimated 47 percent of families in the shelter system are homeless because of eviction. It costs over $43,000 to shelter a family and over $22,000 to shelter an individual. Avoiding eviction will save the city over $250 million in shelter costs. Additionally, preserving affordable housing units will save another $259 million.

The human costs of evicting people are immeasurable. Enacting Intro 214A will be a giant step toward fair treatment under the law.