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Legal Service Providers Laud Expansion of Housing Court Representation

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Fri, 02/17/2017 - 19:29

Here's a freelance piece I did today for the New York Law Journal about New York City's ground-breaking plan to use city funds to ensure that tenants earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level will have lawyers when facing eviction:

New York City's plan to offer free counsel to low-income Housing Court tenants facing eviction doesn't mean tenants who fail to meet income requirements won't receive any help.

City leaders this month agreed to allocate an extra $93 million to expand representation for tenant with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, or $50,000 for a family of four. According to City Councilman Mark Levine, two-thirds of tenants in Housing Court fall into that category.

However, city residents who make more than the income threshold will still be entitled to legal guidance if they need it—although how exactly they would receive that guidance remains unclear..

Beth Goldman, president and attorney-in-charge of New York Legal Assistance Group, said that the opportunity to help higher-income tenants with advice—even though they won't get a lawyer to represent them in court—is extremely meaningful. That will mean no one is "going to be completely left on their own" in Housing Court, she said.

Goldman said she hopes the increase in legal services will cause judges to start asking tenants if they have consulted with legal counsel before they proceed with eviction cases.

The proposal expands on the city's previous investment in providing representation for lower-income tenants facing evictions. The city's funding already had increased more than tenfold, from $6 million to $62 million, in the past two years. With the new allocation, the total city spending for Housing Court representation will be $155 million.

According to city officials, the expansion of tenant legal aid since 2014 has led to 27 percent of tenants being represented in court—compared to just 1 percent before—and evictions dropping by 24 percent.

Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC, said that the city's commitment to funding tenant legal aid already has allowed his organization to hire 120 additional lawyers and paralegals. The "creation of an effective right to counsel is just a stunning development in the justice system," he said.

Rasmussen said Housing Court will have to change how it operates as a result of the $93 million agreement. With more lawyers involved in defending tenants, there will be an increase in motion practice and trials, he said.

The increased spending will be rolled out over five years, in part to give the city's legal aid organizations time to ramp up recruitment and training for a large number of new attorneys, Levine said.

"It was not long ago that barely 1 percent of tenants facing eviction in the city were represented by counsel," Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a statement on the additional spending for representation. "Building on funding that the state court system has provided for civil legal services, this landmark agreement will ensure that tenants at risk of losing the roof over their heads receive invaluable legal assistance when they appear in court."