NYC to provide free legal council for tenants in housing court
Attorneys Worry it Could Lead to Unintended Consequences
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an initiative on Sunday that will set aside $93 million to provide free legal access to tenants facing eviction in Housing Court. It’s part of a continued expansion of tenant legal aid that de Blasio started two years ago and has led to a 24 percent drop in evictions, according to the Mayor’s Office.
“We are the biggest city in the country to level the playing field between tenants and landlords in Housing Court. To anyone being forced out of their home or neighborhood, we are fighting for you. This is still your city,” said Mayor de Blasio.
It sounds like a huge leap in a city where more than 70 percent of tenants appear in Housing Court without an attorney. However, lawyers who regularly practice in Housing Court aren’t so sure that the initiative will have its intended effects and would rather see the money going toward social programs.
“I have felt that the additional money pumped into social services has made a significant impact on stemming evictions — I find that tenants are able to get three times more in assistance than they were as little as three or four years ago,” said Michael Rosenthal, president of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association.
“As far as the increased provision of legal aid/legal service attorneys – which this proposal will make even more prevalent — I find that the cases are having a longer life, with far more motion practice, but I don’t see that as making a tremendous difference in the number of evictions,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal noted that when it comes to holdover proceedings, he hasn’t seen a change in the eviction rate, and wondered if access to free attorneys won’t just increase the time it takes to hold a trial.
“The unspoken problem this is creating and will continue to create is that small landlords who may be struggling to hold on to their buildings are facing significantly increasing expenses in bringing their tenants to court,” Rosenthal said.
Attorney Jimmy Lathrop agreed with Rosenthal’s assessment and blasted the initiative as a handout to political allies of the mayor. He added that the city should be worried about filling vacancies on the bench within the Housing Court that are causing major delays in cases.
“It’s astonishing that the mayor and speaker will provide a windfall to legal service providers who are his allies politically without providing any measures to alleviate the huge backlog of cases and Housing Court judge vacancies. It’s pointless to provide right to counsel if you can’t get a trial judge,” Lathrop said. “If the mayor and speaker really cared about the communities, he’d fund this boondoggle with an increase in tax on commercial landlords who leave storefronts vacant waiting for a bank or chain store to sign a lease that would be accretive to value.”
Other attorneys who might be more optimistic about the mayor’s initiative still worry about potential problems.
“While the initiative will eradicate the antagonism that goes on between pro se tenants and landlord attorneys, I hope that the attorneys assigned to represent tenants will not resort to time-delaying tactics just for the sake of doing so, and instead deal with the merits, or lack thereof, of each case,” said Domenick Napoletano, past president of the Brooklyn Bar Association. “I also hope that the program actually services economically qualified tenants and isn’t abused by those who aren’t.”
Still, others see this as a significant move by Mayor de Blasio to provide legal services to those who are most in need. Since January 2014, the de Blasio administration has funded programs that have helped evictions by 24 percent. This new initiative will provide free legal representation in court to households with incomes below $50,000. The mayor estimates that this will cover nearly 80 percent of people who appear in Housing Court.
“Universal Access to counsel in Housing Court is an issue the Legal Aid Society has long prioritized and advocated for,” said Seymour W. James, attorney in chief at the Legal Aide Society. “Justice cannot be achieved when over 90 percent of landlords have legal representation in eviction proceedings and 75 percent of tenants are unrepresented — and this is the unfortunate reality that plays out almost every day in housing courts around the city.”