New bill would guarantee New Yorkers an attorney in eviction cases

By Virginia K. Smith  | September 21, 2016 - 2:59PM

Even if you're legally in the right, showing up to housing court without a lawyer on your side is a dicey proposition (not to mention a frightening one). And in fact, many lawyered-up landlords rely on this power imbalance by dragging to court tenants who can't afford lawyers of their own, on the assumption that they'll settle rather than risk facing a judge unrepresented.

A new bill, Intro 214-a, is aiming to wipe out this problem, by making it a legal right for tenants who make 200 percent of the poverty line or below to be guaranteed an attorney when facing eviction in housing court. "Between 80 and 90 percent of tenants currently facing eviction in housing court do not have attorneys, and the majority of landlords do," explains Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers. "So what you see is an attorney who’s very practiced and familiar with housing court, and an unrepresented tenant who’s facing the loss of their home. And most of the tenants are low- or moderate-income, and face really devastating consequences from eviction."

"This would change everything," says tenants rights attorney Sam Himmelstein of the proposed bill. "Perhaps the biggest problem in housing court [is how few tenants have legal representation]. So no matter how fair the courts and judges try to be, there are limits to how far they can go. They can't tell a tenant what their potential defenses are. So tenants have been cajoled into signing settlement stipulations they don't or only partially understand, but they don't know what else to do."

It's part and parcel of a national movement right now, Laurie adds, "for the civil right to counsel that would mirror the criminal right to counsel." 

Himmelstein notes that the number of Legal Aid attorneys has already increased significantly under Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Laurie points out that currently, tenants can call 311 for assistance in the face of eviction, as the city already has a "robust" eviction prevention program.

Currently, the bill is set for a City Council hearing on September 26th (and its backers at the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition are seeking more New Yorkers looking to testify), and after a vote, would need support from the mayor as well as the speaker to move forward. (To that end, there's also a petition you can sign to put pressure on de Blasio to support Intro 214-a.)

Particularly in an era when less scrupulous landlords don't hesitate to use the legal system as a means of harassing tenants, no one should be heading to housing court unrepresented.


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