Expand and Strengthen Right to Counsel
Testimony by Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried
Before the NYC Human Resources Administration
Office of Civil Justice
Public Hearing on the Universal Access to Legal Services Program
for Tenants Facing Eviction
Thursday, November 15, 2018
My name is Richard N. Gottfried. I represent the 75th Assembly District in Manhattan, which includes the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Hells Kitchen, Midtown, and part of the Upper West Side and Murray Hill. Thank you for this opportunity to testify about the Right to Counsel program.
Right to Counsel (RTC) or Universal Access to Legal Counsel (UATC) in Housing Court became a New York City law in 2017. With this law, some, but not all, low-income tenants have the right to have a lawyer provided to them if they are sued in Housing Court by their landlord. Before Right to Counsel was enacted, landlords tried to evict over 230,000 tenants a year. Most of those tenants were low-income people, and predominantly people of color and immigrants.
The program has quickly made a real difference in the lives of many people. Since the implementation of Right to Counsel, evictions are down 24 percent from 2014; filings are down 10% from 2014; and shelter entries from evictions are down. The program contributes to preserving affordable housing and stable communities by keeping people out of court and out of homeless shelters. But there are too many people who cannot access the program because of the income level requirement. The next step is to expand and strengthen the successful Right to Counsel program.
City Council Members Mark Levine, Vanessa Gibson and Diana Ayala have introduced legislation, Intro 1104-2018, to increase the income threshold of 200% of the federal poverty level to 400% and to expand the types of cases covered by RTC to include administrative hearings such as those in HPD, and the NYS HCR (Homes and Community Renewal) agency, as well as for cases that are appealed and a portion that land in state Supreme Court. These would be important steps ahead.
More must be done to increase outreach and tenant awareness. The City needs to finance efforts by various community organizations to educate tenants about when they are entitled to legal representation.
It continues to be a challenge to get the word out to tenants that the right to counsel in Housing Court exists and how to find out if they are eligible and where to go. As part of the RTC implementation, New York Citys Tenant Support Unit knocks on doors to advise tenants at risk of eviction that they are entitled to a lawyer. More tenant outreach and education is needed and can best be provided by neighborhood-based groups with a history of tenant organizing, as well as the Tenant Support Unit. Increased funding to neighborhood-based groups already doing education and outreach would contribute to the effectiveness of the right to counsel program.
Several public awareness efforts, if funded by the City, would help tenants learn of the new right. Efforts such as subway ads, tele-town halls, mass mailings, email and social media, and a hotline are all possible ways to increase access to the program
After only a year, Right to Counsel has proven its effectiveness. It should be expanded and strengthened.