Few benefit from millions spent on anti-eviction lawyers

Few benefit from millions spent on anti-eviction lawyers

November 3, 2015

In an effort to combat homelessness, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has spent nearly $20 million over two years to provide lawyers for low-income tenants fighting evictions in Housing Court. But the funds aid only 12 percent of those tenants, according to calculations by New York Nonprofit Media.

The city estimates it will provide legal counsel to 10,100 low-income tenants this year, and aims to raise that number to 32,700 by 2017. But even if it reaches that goal, the effort will only supply attorneys to roughly a third of low-income New Yorkers facing eviction, if current trends continue. Over 200,000 tenants have eviction proceedings filed against them every year, and 50 to 60 percent of them are low-income, according to estimates used by the city Independent Budget Office.

A spokesman for the city explained that the funding is aimed at helping low-income tenants in neighborhoods where research shows evicted tenants would be more likely to end up homeless. Millions of dollars more are also being spent on other programs to help keep tenants in their apartments.

Tenants have long lacked legal representation in Housing Court. Unlike defendants in criminal court, people contesting their eviction are not guaranteed access to legal counsel. As a result, very few tenants have lawyers.

“About 99 to 98 percent (of tenants in Housing Court) are unrepresented,” said Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher, who oversees the day-to-day operations of trial-level courts in New York City. Meanwhile, Fisher said, 85 to 90 percent of landlords do have lawyers representing them in court.

David Neustadt, a spokesman for the Human Resources Administration, the city agency overseeing the mayor’s initiative, doubted Fisher’s statistics, saying he knew of no formal study that had been done on the subject. But he agreed that “far too many people in Housing Court don’t have representation, and that affects the outcome.”

Many studies, however, highlight the plight of this vulnerable population. According to one conducted in 2001 by tenant advocates, low-income tenants are four times more likely to be evicted if they do not have a lawyer.

“Landlords have big-money attorneys working for them,” said Delsenia Glover, campaign manager at the Alliance for Tenant Power. “The tenant walks into court without any representation, they don’t stand much of a chance.”

Glover says that whatever funding is available to help tenants will make a big difference.

“This will be a really terrific tool in helping tenants to navigate the legal system when it comes to landlords,” she said.

Early last year, City Councilman Mark Levine introduced a proposal to fully fund legal representation for low-income New Yorkers in Housing Court. According to the Independent Budget Office, the effort would cost the city $173 million to $276 million a year.

The legislation remains in committee.

The mayor’s funding initiative, meanwhile, is part of an effort to stem the tide of homelessness by reducing the number of evicted New Yorkers who end up in shelters or on the street.

Studies show that homelessness in New York City has increased over the last six years – and a rising proportion of New Yorkers entering the shelter system say they are homeless because they were evicted. Nearly 27,000 New York City tenants were evicted from their homes last year.

Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of civil law reform at the Legal Aid Society, said legal advice is indispensable to people facing eviction.

“Often, what we find is that tenants have no idea what their rights are,” Goldiner said. But even if a tenant is aware of their rights, it’s very difficult for them to express their case without the benefit of legal training, she said, especially when their landlord has a lawyer.

Goldiner’s organization is one of the principal legal service providers receiving city funds to represent low-income tenants.

Landlord advocates argue that additional funding for tenant lawyers will not solve the deeper problems that cause evictions and homelessness.

“What’s really remarkable is the silence of tenant advocates and the silence of supposedly pro-tenant legislators in the City Council and elsewhere who are more than happy to foist this issue onto landlords or to create this bogus issue” of representation in Housing Court, said Mitch Posilkin, general counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association. “What they should be doing is supporting or thinking about creating meaningful rental subsidies for low-income tenants.”

But Jenny Laurie, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Court Answers, says she and her employees regularly witness tenants being taken advantage of without legal counsel to help them.

“Since most tenants are not represented, they are settling their eviction case in the hallway with the landlord’s attorney – unsupervised by any court personnel,” Laurie said. This dynamic leaves tenants vulnerable to shrewd landlord attorneys, and and they often end up getting a raw deal, advocates say.

“I’m not condoning it,” Posilkin said of the hallway deals. “But it’s the current and long-standing dynamic of the courts.” Everyone in Housing Court should be represented, he added.

Still, he takes a dim view of tenant advocates’ long-standing calls for legal representation.

“They regurgitate that year in and year out, but at the end of the day all that is going to do is beef up their rolls of staff attorneys,” Posilkin said. “It’s just easier to repeat the mantras of the past, and that’s what they’re doing, instead of really trying to solve this.”

But Laurie contends that more tenant attorneys will make a difference, even if some low-income tenants who want a lawyer can’t get one.

“In the future, there are going to be a lot more tenant attorneys in the halls, witnessing (the hallway deals) and calming the waters, so tenants aren’t taken advantage of at the same rate,” Laurie said. “It will change the culture – or we hope it will change the culture – in the hallways and in the courtroom.”

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.