Low-income New Yorkers facing wrongful eviction will be guaranteed legal representation in Housing Court after Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation into law last Friday.
The program, which is overseen by the Civil Justice Coordinator at the Human Services Administration, will serve 400,000 tenants when it is fully implemented in five years.
“New York City will be the first city in the country to ensure anyone facing an eviction case can access legal assistance thanks to this new law,” de Blasio said. “New Yorkers should not lose their homes because they cannot afford a lawyer, and stopping wrongful evictions from happening makes both ethical and economic sense.”
Previously, almost no tenants had legal representation in Housing Court — estimated at just 1 percent in 2013 by state court officials — which resulted in high incidents of evictions and unchecked tenant harassment. To help close the gap, the administration increased the availability of city-funded legal services to low-income tenants, increasing funding from $6 million in 2013 to $62 million in 2016, a tenfold increase.
Under the new law, tenants who earn less than $50,000 a year will be eligible for free legal assistance. Beginning in October, the program will also start providing free legal services to NYCHA tenants in administrative proceedings. There are nearly 3,200 cases that go through NYCHA administrative hearing, annually.
“Access to counsel is an important victory for New York City tenants,” said City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), the Chairman of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services. “For too long, the deck has been stacked against tenants in Housing Court, as many low-income New Yorkers could not afford legal representation. The result of this injustice was that individuals and families were left to defend themselves and oftentimes evicted from their homes. Ensuring that every city resident facing eviction has access to counsel in Housing Court will give tenants a fighting chance to defend themselves and keep families together.”
City Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, called the new measure a huge victory for millions of New Yorkers because it will provide security and economic stability for working-class families.
“With the enactment of this legislation, New York City is sending a clear and uncompromised message that we believe tenants are entitled to safe and affordable housing free from market pressures that promote illegal harassment and displacement.”
The mayor delivered a warning to unscrupulous landlords.
“The message is: ‘Don’t even try it.’ Don’t even try to illegally evict a tenant. Don’t even try to illegally harass a tenant, or illegally deprive them of repairs, or illegally deprive them of heat and hot water,” de Blasio said. “Because the game is up. If you treat a tenant in an illegal manner, you, the unscrupulous landlord, you will pay the price for what you do to these tenants. That’s the message we’re sending, because now everyone has a lawyer.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr
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