Efficacy of right to counsel in New York City

April 22, 2021

By: Anish Advani

In 2017, Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed into law legislation 214-b, which committed to provide legal representation to all tenants facing evictions in the City of New York. Even though it was a phased implementation, the city is well underway into the thick of this program. Prior to 2017, only one percent of tenants were represented by a lawyer in eviction cases according to estimates by New York University’s Furman Center, as opposed to 95% of landlords. Combating this inequity was the program’s foremost goal. With other major cities like San Francisco, Boulder and Philadelphia about to follow suit, the eyes of housing justice advocates were on the implementation and efficacy of this program. 

The fiscal year 2018 marked the first year of the program. The Human Resources Administration (HRA) in charge of implementation had a baseline budget of $77 million in funding for tenant legal services programs that provided assistance to 77,000 families (over 87,000 individuals) in the city. In a startling outcome, about 84% of tenants that had legal representation were able to stay in their homes. Even in cases where tenants were legally required to leave a residence, tenants were permitted to remain for several weeks allowing them time to find new housing. As the initial phase of implementation focused on expanding legal representation for low-income households in eviction proceedings in Housing Court, households with an annual gross household income not in excess of 200% of the federal poverty guidelines ($32,920 for a family of two) were prioritized. Less than four percent of the families facing eviction were above the income threshold defined for the initial period of the program. In fact, in the specific examples of eviction proceedings, 67% of renters that received legal services were below the Federal Poverty Line. 

An overwhelming majority of tenants facing eviction with representation were allowed to remain in their residence in 2018

Year two of the program saw sharp increases in the number of people with representation, as the HRA’s baseline budget for tenant legal services increased to $105 million. To further facilitate access, OCJ has partnered with the court system to establish a telephone hotline for tenants to call and find out more about free legal assistance, learn about program eligibility and connect with free counsel as quickly as possible. At full implementation, Universal Access will be supported by a projected $166 million in mayoral funding annually and is expected to provide free legal services in approximately 125,000 cases per year to 400,000 New Yorkers. In 2019, over 41,000 households and 105,000 individuals were able to get legal assistance for cases including eviction, disrepair, landlord harassment and other threats to tenancy. This reflects a 24% increase in households served compared to the prior year and a 74% increase compared to FY2017, before the formal launch of Universal Access.

The number of evictions in NYC has steadily declined as eviction defense services have ramped up in the city

New York City’s Universal Access to Counsel (UAC) program has generated substantial interest as other jurisdictions across the states are considering or have implemented similar programs. There are several statistics from their implementation that stand out in favor of such a program, especially the percentage of represented NYC tenants that are able to stay in their homes. The fact that a significant proportion of tenants served through this program were under the federal poverty line is indicative of the efficacy of a right to counsel program in addressing financial inequities between landlords and tenants. 

In June 2018, San Francisco voters approved a ballot initiative requiring the city to establish a program to provide legal representation to all tenants facing eviction. The LA City Council approved a motion in August 2018 instructing the housing department to develop recommendations for a new eviction defense bill or program. New York City’s success has generated considerable momentum for Right to Counsel in major cities across the country, including current initiatives in the cities of Charlottesville, Denver and Seattle. 

The process for commencing an eviction case, the permissible grounds for bringing such a case, the requirements for tenant appearances in court and so forth vary to large degrees in different jurisdictions. Design and administration for a jurisdiction must therefore be tailored to its specific needs and procedural context. However, NYC’s right to counsel implementation provides valuable lessons for other entities going through similar programs. A foundational question is how long it will take to implement the program, and whether it will be accomplished in phases. This question implicates several different challenges, including space constraints, provider capacity, and court capacity. For a city of New York’s size, it made sense to go with the phased approach. Determining how best to advise tenants that they are entitled to counsel under a UAC program is critically important. In New York City, eviction proceedings begin when a landlord serves a tenant with court papers and files the papers in Housing Court. Thus, informing the tenant of their rights, along with education about the advantages of being represented, through campaigns, tenants’ groups organizations and advertisements serves as a key function of the success of the program. Jurisdictions might also consider including information about the availability of assigned counsel in the petition or summons served on the tenant. Jurisdictions must also budget the time and resources needed to provide courtroom staff and support personnel, space in the courthouse, and other adjustments to make the right to counsel work efficiently. In New York City, the number of answers and motions filed alleging defenses appears to have increased. Similar changes may be expected in other cities. 

In short, the implementation of right to counsel in New York city is groundbreaking, and it provides an opportunity for other jurisdictions to design and implement their own programs. Although many of the lessons learned by the implementation in New York are specific to a city of the size and population of the giant metropolis, the underlying considerations are common for a program of this size for any city. Being in the business of rental housing, where families grow, eat, sleep, relax after a long workday, constitutes an important function of society. As the size of the housing rental business keeps on its upward trajectory of growth, it is imperative we establish robust tenant access programs to protect the people in that ecosystem. I believe that being in the housing business requires not fraudulently evicting a tenant; when we see a huge disconnect between the percentage of renters that are evicted without representation vs those that do have counsel, it’s evident from the change in New York City’s eviction statistics that legal representation is the only way to ensure that that’s not the case. It’s a collective cost that the industry must bear for substantially better outcomes. Access to legal representation as a right is a significant step in building tenant power and must be considered across jurisdictions for better outcomes.