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State of the City: Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito Rally Around Universal Access to Free Legal Services for Tenants Facing Eviction in Housing Court

February 12, 2017

Additional $93 million provides all NYC tenants facing eviction access to free legal advice and low-income tenants with full legal representation

Biggest city to offer universal access, available at the City’s Housing Court and through 311

NEW YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito today announced that, for the first time, the City will fund universal access to legal services for tenants facing eviction in New York City Housing Court. A $93 million allocation doubles the Administration’s existing funding for tenant legal services. Legal services have proven effective at reducing unlawful evictions and preventing displacement. Since beginning an unprecedented expansion of tenant legal aid two years ago, evictions have dropped by 24 percent.

“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 Bill de Blasio

“Bringing more justice to vulnerable New Yorkers is a hallmark of this City Council,” said Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “Since passing landmark legislation in 2015 to create the Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator, the Council has tirelessly worked to figure out how to best provide legal representation to all low-income New Yorkers facing eviction. Today, we're closer than ever to realizing this goal. The groundbreaking legislation outlined by the City Council and the Mayor will ensure that no low-income New Yorker is forced from their home without legal representation. I thank Council Member Levine for his fierce advocacy and leadership on behalf of New York City's tenants and Council Member Gibson and the Administration for their support and partnership on this critical issue.”

“This announcement marks the beginning of a new era for tenants in New York City,” said Council Member Mark Levine. “No longer will low-income New Yorkers have to face the life-altering threat of an eviction alone. I am proud that the Council and Mayor de Blasio have come together to make this historic program a reality.”

“Today's announcement is an exciting opportunity to continue to build on our incredible investments in affordable housing and anti-eviction civil legal services for low income New Yorkers. I am extremely thankful for the commitment to fully fund Right to Counsel, equipping tenants with legal representation in eviction proceedings, and setting aside 10,000 units of housing for the low and extremely low income. Affordable housing and access to a lawyer is s fundamental right that I truly believe invests in our families, keeps them in their homes and prevents homelessness. I am so thankful for all the hard work that got us here. The Mayor, the Speaker, 42 Council Members, advocates, civil legal service providers, this is a monumental and incredible step forward. I especially want to thank my Housing Organizers in District 16, CASA Bronx, for their tireless efforts and commitment to being a powerful voice for our tenants and their families,” said co-sponsor Council Member Vanessa Gibson.

“This historic access to counsel program builds on the work done to protect tenants since 2014 though the Office of Civil Justice at the Department of Social Services, which has already increased the number of tenants protected by a lawyer in Housing Court from 1 percent to 27 percent and helped reduce evictions by 24 percent,” said Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks.

Commissioner Loree Sutton of the Department of Veterans' Services said, "New York City has made tremendous strides in mitigating veteran homelessness, with a 90% reduction since 2011. With access to free legal services, vulnerable veterans at risk of losing their housing gain access to a crucial set of services to help ensure they can stay in their homes. These services, in combination with our new After Care Coordinator Program, are exactly the programs New York City's veterans and their families need to stay on track to build productive, fulfilling lives."

The new funds are on top of the City’s unprecedented $62 million-a-year commitment to expand legal services for tenants, which launched in 2014. The new funds will be phased in over the next five fiscal years, starting with $15 million in Fiscal Year 2018, to reach $93 million by 2022. At full implementation, the City’s investment in anti-eviction legal services will total $155 million.

The City Council will memorialize the program in legislation.

Since January 2014, Administration-funded legal service programs have served more than 34,000 households and assisted more than 100,000 New Yorkers.

The number of tenants in Housing Court with legal representation has risen to 27 percent, up from 1 percent in 2013. Evictions by City Marshals have decreased 24 percent, representing more than 20,000 New Yorkers who were able to stay in their homes in 2015.

Universal access will provide free legal representation in court to New Yorkers with household incomes below roughly $50,000 (200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four), and legal counseling to those earning more. The City estimates 400,000 New Yorkers will be served under the program every year at full implementation.

The expanded tenant protection initiative comes on the heels of Mayoral announcements this past week to boost the creation of affordable housing for lower income seniors, veterans and working families under Housing New York, the plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in 10 years. The Mayor is also pushing in Albany for a Mansion Tax on the sale of luxury homes to fund rental help for more than 25,000 seniors struggling to pay their rent each month.

“This is a critically important development in the effort to level the playing field in Housing Court in New York City," said Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. “It was not long ago that barely 1 percent of tenants facing eviction in the City were represented by counsel. 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.”

Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, said, “The universal access to counsel bill is a landmark in the battle for equal justice in New York City and the Nation. I commend Mayor DeBlasio and Speaker Mark Viverito for their unswerving leadership and their commitment to ensuring that New Yorkers in need get the legal representation they deserve. The roof over a person's head is truly the most basic necessity of life. Today's announcement demonstrates that the scales of justice will be evenly balanced for housing cases that are so important to the individuals involved and to the wellbeing of our City. Much appreciation is also due to Commissioner Steve Banks, Council members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, Professor Andrew Scherer and the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

"For years, I've seen, first-hand, how overmatched tenants are in court proceedings. Establishing the Right to Counsel maybe the single most important thing we can do to prevent homelessness and keep tenants in their homes. I'm proud to support this initiative and I applaud Mayor Bill de Blasio, Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and Council Member Mark Levine for advancing this crucial initiative. Let's help tenants lawyer up and keep New Yorkers in their homes," said Public Advocate Tish James.

Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, said, “The City Council has fought long and hard to fight homelessness and preserve affordable housing. Providing access to free, quality representation in housing court is one of the most basic services this city can provide to help New Yorkers facing eviction and tenant harassment. I'm proud to stand with the Mayor and the Speaker in prioritizing this important investment. This initiative will ensure that hard working New Yorkers can remain in their homes.”

"Today's announcement is a game changer," said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez. "Tenants in my community and those across the city have long needed legal support in their struggle against unscrupulous landlords. With the right to counsel, these tenants can stand stronger when landlords refuse to make repairs, withhold rent checks, engage in harassment and more. I congratulate my colleague Council Member Levine for his efforts in seeing this through to the end and Mayor de Blasio for his leadership on behalf of New Yorkers. Alongside ten thousand announced apartments for lower income New Yorkers and efforts to preserve the rent freeze, today is a good day for tenants in New York City and I applaud the administration for their efforts.”

“This agreement represents a huge step towards making New York City a more fair and equitable place,” said Chris Widelo, Associate State Director for AARP New York. “It will prevent wrongful evictions and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in the process by keeping New Yorkers in their homes and out of the shelter system. AARP thanks Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito, City Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, and the Council for coming together to protect New Yorkers by providing access to counsel.” 

Andrew Scherer, Policy Director, Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School, said,It’s all too rare to see real progress toward a fair and equitable society.  This historic agreement gives all low income New Yorkers the security of knowing they will have a fighting chance to defend their homes and communities in a court of law when they are threatened with eviction. Thanks to the leadership of the Mayor, the Speaker and the Council, particularly Council Members Levine and Gibson, New York City is where it belongs – in the forefront, providing a shining example of how to protect and advance fundamental human and civil rights.”

“This a stunning step forward for our justice system,” said Raun Rasmussen, Executive Director of Legal Services NYC. “As a result of the bold initiative of the Mayor and City Council, and the work of the Right to Counsel Coalition, families and individuals will get the legal help they need to keep their homes. This will be life changing for thousands of low income New Yorkers, who no longer need to live in fear of the catastrophic impact of eviction on their health, education, safety and general welfare.”

Seymour W. James, Jr, Attorney-in-Chief, Legal Aide Society, said, “Universal Access to counsel in housing court is an issue The Legal Aid Society has long prioritized and advocated for. 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. We applaud Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito for their leadership on an historic legislative compromise that finally addresses a plight thousands of renters face each year. Universal access to counsel will save taxpayer dollars, reduce homelessness and establish parity in a system that has largely favored landlords over seniors, working class families and other low-income New Yorkers.”

“NYLAG congratulates the Mayor and City Council for this bold and historic accomplishment and for making NYC the biggest jurisdiction in the nation to guarantee the right to counsel in housing court. With a lawyer by their side, vulnerable New York residents at risk of losing their homes will be guaranteed meaningful access to justice,” said Beth Goldman, NYLAG’s President and Attorney-in-Charge. “Zealous representation to tenants in Housing Court is essential to keeping people in their homes, preserving neighborhoods, and preventing homelessness. NYLAG is proud to be part of this extraordinary effort and looks forward to working with the Administration and Council to make this commitment a reality.”

Doug Lasdon, Executive Director of Urban Justice Center, said, “Thanks to this historic initiative we will finally put a stop to the devastating consequences to families, children, and entire communities from illegal evictions. We’ve been fighting to address the imbalance of power between landlords and tenants for over fifty years. New York City has Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Viverito to thank for this courageous and visionary effort to extend the arc of justice. “ 

"We applaud Mayor de Blasio for making good on his promise of more affordable housing for New Yorkers who need it the most and ensure that they can stay in their homes and communities. The Mayor's plan for free legal services will ensure that. We will keep working with the Mayor to ensure our city continues to be a good home for us all," said Hector Figueroa, President of 32BJ SEIU.

“The 220,000 healthcare workers of 1199SEIU in New York City strongly support Mayor de Blasio's proposal to expand legal services to working people and lower-income residents in housing court. Our members who work in our city's hospitals, nursing homes, homecare agencies, clinics and pharmacies want to be able to live in the same communities where they provide care. Along with the Mayor's many successful efforts to build more affordable housing and freeze increases for rent-regulated apartments, this is part of a broad progressive effort to make New York City affordable for working people,” said Helen Schaub, New York State Director, Policy and Legislation, 1199 SEIU.

Julie Kushner, Director, UAW Region 9A, said, "For far too long the overwhelming majority of tenants in New York City's Housing Court have been without legal representation when facing eviction or trying to enforce their rights to safe and affordable housing. This imbalance has been a major factor in the loss of affordable housing and the rise in homelessness in our city.  We applaud Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito for their leadership in bringing about this historic expansion of the right to counsel, and congratulate our members at legal services and legal aid organizations, and at tenants’ rights groups who have worked for decades to make this a reality.”

"Today marks a major step forward in our city's history towards justice and equity, and what an important time to do it. Today the Mayor pledged his support to codifying Universal Access to Counsel into law and to ensuring that it will be fully funded. This means that tenants no longer have to fear unjust evictions. This means that tenants no longer have to fear eviction as retaliation for organizing in their buildings or hold their landlord accountable. This means that we have more tools to fight gentrification.  This is a victory for all of New York. Today we celebrate and we look forward to working with the Mayor and the City Council to seeing this bill signed into law,” said Randy Dillard, CASA Leader.

"The Right to Counsel Coalition has fought long and hard for this measure that will give families a fighting chance to remain in their homes and communities, stem the tide of gentrification and displacement, protect families from the devastating effects of eviction and homelessness and reduce public expenditures on the shelter system and the many long-term public costs associated with eviction and homelessness. Today's landmark agreement sends a strong message to the City’s poorest residents that their lives, homes and communities matter and that they will be protected," said Susanna Blankley, Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

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