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Right to Counsel in Housing Court

Right to Counsel in Housing Court
In a move that signals the progressive pull in New York City Government and would seem long overdue to those within the housing rights movement, more than half of the City Council is supporting a new bill that would guarantee everyone representation in housing court.
In 2013 alone 246,864 eviction notices were issued around the city. 99% of those who made it to housing course represented themselves in court. By contrast landlord/building owners were counseled by some of the best representation money can buy. Many tenants tend to move instead of fighting the case in housing court often giving up their rights as residents, being unable to afford a housing lawyer. Research has shown that legal representation would have changed the outcome of many these cases. Pro bono lawyers are too few in supply to help curb the flood of new evictions. Joining the progressive arm of NYC’s Democratic caucus are several tenant’s rights groups along with legal service providers .

The move comes in an effort to preserve what rent regulated units are left and to curb the rate of homelessness which is exploding in most of the five boroughs. The idea for guaranteed counsel for lower income New Yorkers is nothing new however. On March 14th 2005 the Lawyers’ New York Association issued a resolution, forged after meetings on October 29th 2004, which proposed many of the same details which is this legislation. . Publications195_0.pdf. According to some of the findings in studies used for this report, those who have lawyers to represent them dramatically reduced the chances of being evicted. Family members who are faced with the difficulties of dealing with being evicted and at times possible homelessness have been shown to be at a greater risk of health problems linked to the stress. Further, whole communities are at risk once mass evictions and gentrification wash through a given area.

On October 24th 2007, Council members Rose Mendez and Alan Gerson proposed an amendment to the administrative code in New York City in relation to providing legal counsel to tenants who are on the verge of losing their homes. The proposal, if it had passed, would have guaranteed counsel in housing court to those tenants considered at risk or bring in a lower than average income; who are facing eviction due to nonpayment or a hold over. These occupants include those who reside in rental units, coops condominiums and one or two family houses.
An eligible defendant for guaranteed counsel would also include residents who are 62 years or older, is part of a house hold whose total income does not exceed the permissible amount for those who collect benefits. Designated organizations must provide legal services to eligible tenants and has to be recognized by the “civil justice coordinator” in charge. Further break down of the proposal can be viewed on the Gotham Gazette link .

When considers that out of the 300,000 eviction cases filed in 2013, 246,864 were granted, it is plain to see that any lower income tenants representing themselves in court are usually over matched. According to Emily Jane Goodman of the Gotham Gazette less than 12% of tenants who face eviction have the resources to even be able to pay for a lawyer, as of 2006.
One may ask how such a law is not in place already for housing court. The answer is simple. Housing cases are civil court cases where, unlike criminal cases, one must pay for their own representation if they are to have one in court. So now that more than half of the city council supports the latest legislation we will see if it passes this time around or we going to see another failed opportunity.
Until next time…

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