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New York City Activists Mobilize for Right to Counsel in Eviction

New York City may become the first to provide free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction.

(Image: Tenants' rights via Shutterstock)

Shanequa Charles was just a child when she, her mother and sister moved into the Bronx, New York, apartment she currently calls home. It was 1988. Although there were occasional problems in the building – erratic heat and hot water and leaks – for the most part, the family lived comfortably.

Then, in February 2012, Charles’ mom passed away. “As soon as we put my queen in the ground, we got eviction papers because neither my name nor my sister’s name were on the lease,” Charles told a packed Housing Justice conference at New York Law School in early December.

“Our rent has always been fully paid, so you’d think the landlord would want to keep us around as tenants. Unfortunately, he wants us out so he can charge more for the apartment. I’ve been going back-and-forth to Housing Court to fight this for more than two years.”

At the beginning of her ordeal, Charles says, she knew little about tenant’s rights, which is why she signed a stipulation agreeing to pay a higher rental fee that she now knows she should not have signed. It was only later, she explains, when she joined a tenants’ rights group called Community Action for Safe Apartments, or CASA, that she gained the knowledge to stand up for both herself and her neighbors. What’s more, thanks to CASA, Charles was able to secure legal representation. This not only helped her press the landlord for needed repairs – it also stopped the eviction in its tracks.

“When I walked into the courtroom with the support of CASA advocates, it was amazing,” she grins. “This is why we need attorneys available to represent tenants in court. It’s the best way to make sure that injustices don’t happen.”

It’s noteworthy that one-third of homeless people have jobs.

Indeed, the imperative to provide free legal representation to indigent and low-income tenants not only has the support of CASA, but also of dozens of community agencies and legal services providers – including the city and state bar associations and numerous judges – throughout the five boroughs of New York City. The effort was kick-started by a bill, pending before the City Council, called Intro 214, that is poised to make New York City the first municipality in the country to provide free legal counsel to every person at risk of eviction who needs it.

“We are not going to bring about justice in the criminal justice system until we address social crises including homelessness and poverty,” said City Council member Mark Levine, the legislation’s coauthor, at a December press conference touting the bill. “The issues are inextricably linked.”

Sounding more like a community activist that a politician, the firebrand official notes that Housing Court judges ordered nearly 30,000 evictions in 2013. “Think of the human toll,” he says. “In a city with a budget of $75 billion, I believe we can find the money to do right by tenants. Evictions are the single largest source of families going into the shelter system. When we prevent evictions, we prevent affordable housing from being lost.”

Levine also reports that providing attorneys is a smart investment for taxpayers, because every dollar spent on homelessness prevention saves $5 to $6 in incarceration or temporary shelter costs. “If that’s not a slam-dunk,” he says, “I don’t know what is.”

New York, of course, is not the only place in the throes of an affordable housing crisis. In fact, homelessness is on the uptick in every region of the United States, with 578,424 people living without permanent homes as of January 2014. Some live on the streets, in abandoned buildings, or in parks, cars, or subways, while others double-up or find domicile in whatever temporary shelter their hometown has established.

And it is not only renters who are feeling the pinch. In 2013, 1,369,405 homes were foreclosed, bringing the total to nearly 11.5 million since 2010.

Intro 214 will not assist people who are behind on mortgages. Nonetheless, advocates see it as an important, if limited, step in the fight for housing justice, a battle that will ultimately need to address the magnitude of – and reasons for – today’s affordable housing emergency: excessively high rents, overcharges and other landlord abuses.

Nonetheless, advocates see it as an important first step in the fight for housing justice, a battle that will ultimately need to address the magnitude of – and reasons for – today’s affordable housing emergency: excessively high rents, overcharges and other landlord abuses.

High costs make paying rent impossible for many

First and foremost is cost. According to a report in USA TODAY, published in March, 2014, the number of hours a person employed at minimum wage needs to work to pay the median rent in their state is quickly rising. The range, the article reports, goes from a low of 69 hours in Arkansas and Montana to 174 hours in Hawaii, 138 in Maryland, 137 in DC, and 121 in New Jersey.

Out of control? You betcha, especially since the average rent in the United States hit $1,008 in 2012. In fact, rampant gentrification has diminished the stock of low-income housing, and since the federal government has not built any new public housing in decades, the percentage of families paying more than half their income for shelter has skyrocketed, reaching 1 in 4 households in 2012.

Not surprisingly, when other demands – such as medical care or the need for a new winter coat or shoes for the kid – compete for attention, people sometimes fall behind on rent. Advocates charge that this makes the provision of free legal representation – to say nothing of legislated rent controls and the construction of not-for-profit housing for low-income individuals and families – an issue whose time has come.

“Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” Add in the stress of losing a home or having to switch schools – and of having to navigate a complex housing court without assistance – and the picture becomes increasingly grim.

There is precedent for it. The 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright gave those facing imprisonment the right to an attorney regardless of their ability to pay, and several cities now provide no-cost representation to anyone facing involuntary commitment in a psychiatric facility, the termination of parental rights, or deportation. In addition, all 47 countries in the European Union, as well as Australia, Brazil, Madagascar, New Zealand and South Africa, provide free legal counsel in civil cases.

The rationale for free legal counsel in civil cases rests with a 1979 European Court of Human Rights decision in Airey v. Ireland. According to the court, “provision of counsel is necessary to achieve full recognition of the right to a fair trial.” The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while not binding, further underscores the centrality of representation as a matter of equity and equal protection of law.

It may sound lofty, but Susanna Blankley, CASA’s director of housing organizing, makes clear that the issue is anything but. Two thousand Bronx tenants go to housing court every day, she says, with approximately 11,000 evicted this year alone.

“Citywide, about 300,000 individuals and families go to borough housing courts every year; last year, 28,849 were evicted,” she continues. “The Tale of Two cities that Mayor de Blasio talks about plays out in housing court like nowhere else. Ninety percent of landlords have an attorney, while 90 percent of tenants are unrepresented. Legal counsel is a way to even the playing field. It’s also an issue of racial justice since most of those being evicted are people of color.”

The end results are well documented.

Patrick Markee, deputy executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, notes that on an average night in New York City, between 58,000 and 59,000 people take refuge in shelters, 25,000 of them children.

“Since 2002, there’s been a 91 percent increase in homelessness,” he says, with an average of 110,000 people a year moving through the system. This does not include those in domestic violence or youth shelters, or living in housing for people with HIV/AIDS. “Overall, the number of homeless people is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression, and the average stay in city-run shelters is now 14 months. It’s noteworthy that one-third of homeless people have jobs and that two-thirds were previously homeless and are now back in the system for a variety of reasons.”

Markee further emphasizes the enormity of expenditures on temporary housing: $38,000 per family, per year.

The toll, of course, extends far beyond the financial. Matthew Desmond, a sociology professor at Harvard, has studied the emotional impact of homelessness on children and adults. Although his research focuses on Milwaukee, his conclusions, he says, can be generalized. “Eviction is a cause, not just an effect, of poverty,” he points out. “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

Add in the stress of losing a home or having to switch schools – and of having to navigate a complex housing court without assistance – and the picture becomes increasingly grim.

CASA’s Carmen Vega-Rivera describes the scene she has repeatedly encountered in her battle to force her landlord to make needed repairs to her building.

“Housing court is a nightmare,” she told Truthout. “When you walk in, you see long lines. People on them don’t know what to do. There are parents standing on line with crying children and lots of single mothers of color. Sometimes you’ll have a lawyer approach you who represents the landlord, and you won’t understand what’s being said or know what to do. It’s total chaos.”

That said, while activists know that Intro 214 is not a panacea, they are convinced that providing legal assistance to indigent and low-income tenants is essential in mitigating this chaos. John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, notes that there have been two studies – in Boston and San Francisco – to determine the impact of representation on tenants going to housing court because of a threatened eviction. Pollock reports that in both cases, tenants who were represented kept possession of their homes far more often than those without counsel. They also negotiated better settlements for paying arrears and for getting building code violations corrected.

Lastly, he adds, there was another, largely unanticipated, benefit: “When landlords know that every tenant will have an attorney, they aren’t as likely to refuse to make repairs or bring a frivolous lawsuit to try and empty an apartment because they know they’ll lose.”

This is music to the ears of tenant Shanequa Charles, who says, “Housing needs to be looked at as a human right. Everyone should have a roof over their head.”

As of year’s end, Intro 214 has 40 city council sponsors, and hearings on the bill are expected to take place in early 2015.

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