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A legacy left by former mayor Bill de Blasio will be put to the test if New York State’s eviction moratorium law expires on Jan. 15 — with more extensions unlikely.
Building on an initiative pushed for by the City Council, the de Blasio administration ensured that every needy tenant facing eviction in the city has a right to a free attorney, funded by the government.
Legal aid attorneys said full implementation of the Right to Counsel law in every part of the city last year came just in time, for a program that has already made a substantial mark. More than 200,000 eviction cases are pending in Housing Court, but officials couldn’t say how many of those were filed during the pandemic.
The program has been such a success that in her State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed expanding it statewide.
‘I Nearly Had a Third Heart Attack’
One grateful beneficiary is Barbara Eubanks, a former opera singer and foster mom who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In 2019, she got an eviction notice from the landlord of the apartment building where she’d been living for more than 40 years.
She had been “squeaking by” for a while, she said, and had fallen behind on rent.
Eubanks called the landlord and begged for a little more time to pay off her debt, but he refused.
“I panicked and nearly had a third heart attack when I got a signed letter from the landlord’s legal firm,” said Eubanks, 75. “I wasn’t able to sleep. I was so anxiety-ridden you can’t imagine.”
At Housing Court in lower Manhattan, Eubanks was approached by someone who connected her to the group Neighborhood Defender Service as part of the first-in-the-nation Right to Counsel initiative.
The provision of publicly funded lawyers to all low-income tenants in Housing Court eviction cases has been likened by some attorneys to the right to a public defender in criminal cases that arose in the 1960s.
Since Right to Counsel became law in 2017, the initiative has helped more than 65,000 city residents remain in their homes in the face of eviction proceedings in Housing Court, according to city data.
Eubanks, who in addition to performing in operas at Lincoln Center and concerts at Carnegie Hall has worked part time in law firms and as a voice instructor, said she saw herself falling behind on rent the same way parts of the world are anxiously watching sea levels rise.
“You know it’s coming,” she said, “but you don’t know how to stop it.”
With the help of the free attorneys, who also connected her to the city’s social services agency, Eubanks said she managed to settle her case after 18 months of back-and-forth negotiations.
Late last month, she took a major step in putting the challenging saga to rest: She signed a new lease in the same apartment.
“I don’t think this would have happened without a lot of help,” said Eubanks. “This has been nothing short of a miracle.”
Evictions as ‘Weapon’
Before 2014, no-cost legal representation for tenants facing eviction in New York City wasn’t easy to come by. Tenant attorneys estimate that fewer than 10% of tenants with eviction cases in Housing Court had lawyers, while nearly all landlords had legal representation.
City marshals carried out 28,849 residential evictions in 2013, according to Human Resources Administration data.
At the time, the Legal Aid Society had been providing services to a limited number of tenants for nearly a decade under a privately funded program called Housing HELP. The head of Legal Aid at the time was Steve Banks — who in 2014 was named by de Blasio as the city’s commissioner for social services, which put him in charge of HRA.
When de Blasio and Banks arrived at City Hall, they inherited a small $5 million-a-year anti-eviction program launched by former mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Within months, new City Councilmembers Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) and Vanessa Gibson (D-The Bronx) introduced legislation that would, through planned expansion over five years, have the government pay for attorneys to serve all low-income tenants facing eviction proceedings.
Levine, sworn in this week as Manhattan borough president, said his interest in the issue came from hearing too many stories from tenants and advocates about the deck being stacked against them in Housing Court.
“It was clear that eviction proceedings were being used as a weapon, and that landlords knew full well that very few tenants would have an attorney,” he told THE CITY.
“And so they would haul tenants into Housing Court, sometimes on pretty flimsy grounds, knowing that the tenant would be quite intimidated and then maybe would take a buyout for a paltry sum — or in some cases would be so scared they would just leave.”
At the same time, Banks encouraged de Blasio to untangle an array of government legal services for tenants, consolidating them at his HRA.
While the mayor embraced the notion of a civil right to counsel, he wasn’t prepared to support the Council measure yet: de Blasio testified at a hearing organized by then-New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in September 2015 that such a program would require federal financial assistance.
In the meantime, Banks successfully prodded de Blasio to bump up funding from $5 million to $25 million annually for full courtroom representation. Starting in 2016, the de Blasio administration provided lawyers to tenants in 10 zip codes with the highest eviction rates.
By 2016, about 27% of tenants facing eviction in Housing Court had attorneys under the expanding pilot program, according to City Hall. That year, evictions fell to 22,089 — a 24% drop from 2013.
“By the time we got to 2016, we could show that evictions by marshals were beginning to come down,” said Banks, who in April of that year was named commissioner of the newly formed Department of Social Services, which includes homeless services as well as HRA.
“We had demonstrated that it had a really significant impact on people’s lives in terms of preventing evictions,” he added.
In July 2017, the City Council passed the Right to Counsel legislation, which de Blasio signed into law that August. It set the maximum income for full legal representation in eviction cases at 200% of the federal poverty rate, or $53,000 for a family of four this year.
Tenants with higher incomes still can get legal advice or consultations via the program.
Attorneys who work at legal aid groups said that even with a number of speed bumps in the program’s structure and rollout, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
“Having this type of access to attorneys in order to represent you for something that’s so essential to life — access to housing — is invaluable,” said Kinshasa Hillery, a director with Riseboro Community Partnership, a Brooklyn-based social services group. “I don’t know how to underscore that.”
Guillermina Richards, 56, is a single mom on disability who lives with two of her three now-adult children in a spacious one-bedroom in Flatbush.
She said she’s done everything she could over three decades living in the same apartment to keep her family out of a homeless shelter — but she’s still had brushes with eviction.
She said the free legal services provided by The Legal Aid Society have helped her family stay housed during the bumpy times when things seemed overwhelming.
“The program is definitely, definitely needed,” she told THE CITY. “I’ve been comfortable there for 30 years, and hopefully I’ll continue to be there safe and secure.”
‘No End in Sight’
In the four fiscal years since the law passed, a minimum of 84% of tenants whose cases were closed each year, and who had full legal representation in Housing Court, were allowed to stay in their homes, according to HRA analyses.
Meanwhile, residential evictions by city marshalls fell to 16,996 in 2019 — down 41% since 2013, per HRA data.
With the vast majority of eviction cases concerning nonpayment of rent, one of the keys to tenants winning them has been a significant increase in funding to help pay for rent arrears, attorneys and city officials say.
“Just having a lawyer, by itself you can get a lot of mileage, but ultimately you need a financial backstop for low-income people and in New York, that’s been the city,” said Nakeeb Siddique, director of The Legal Aid Society’s Brooklyn housing office.
“That it is better for [tenants] and eminently worth it to pay off the sum that’s owed, rather than having that person go to shelter at much, much higher costs.”
Funding for rent arrears from the city government doubled from 2013 to the 12-month period preceding last year’s coronavirus pandemic, according to Banks — from $125 million to $250 million a year.
Still, a significant number of eviction cases have other elements at play, including the failure of landlords to make repairs or overcharging for rent — particularly in rent-stabilized units.
Carmen, now 72, was living in fear of losing the Hamilton Heights apartment she shared with her daughter and granddaughter since their management company jacked up the rent by $350 in 2013.
She had just signed a lease that same year that said the rent would climb by only $30, so she continued paying that amount on what she was told was a rent-stabilized unit.
But when a new management firm took over in 2015, Carmen — who asked for her last name to be withheld — was served with eviction papers.
“We were afraid from day to day that somebody’s going to knock on the door and we were going to be evicted,” she told THE CITY. “If we had problems with anything in the apartment we were afraid to even report it because we didn’t want to bring attention to ourselves.”
It took five years, and free legal help from the nonprofit Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, for Carmen to get the eviction case against her family resolved.
The unit was confirmed to be rent-stabilized, which immediately halved her rent. She’s also expecting to get back a significant windfall for the thousands of dollars she’s been overpaying for years.
“I had been going to court so many years, month after month, and I saw no end in sight. Finally when the judge made the judgment, I was so relieved,” she told THE CITY. “They would have taken much more advantage of me if I had not had legal representation, because they would have figured I would eventually give up.”
While the full expansion of Right to Counsel wasn’t initially slated to happen until next year, the City Council and de Blasio passed a law in May that sped up implementation of universal representation to June 2021.
In the fiscal year that ended that same month, 71% of tenants in housing court had full legal representation, according to City Hall.
Officials cited the urgency sparked by the coronavirus pandemic for the June bill.
The pandemic that overwhelmed the city starting in March 2020 also caused significant interruptions to judicial proceedings, including Housing Court.
While the courts weren’t completely shuttered, only one court was open in each borough for emergencies in March and April 2020. Virtual hearings started gradually in May 2020, but many tenants had internet access issues that made attending online hearings challenging.
The financial hit also prompted the partial statewide eviction moratorium, which, after a number of extensions, is slated to expire Jan. 15. Gov. Kathy Hochul has indicated that she does not support any further extensions.
Whenever expiration comes, it will put the right-to-counsel system to its greatest stress test yet. The program is funded at $166 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30, according to city officials — which includes $66 million in federal funds.
Housing Court lawyers credit the right to counsel for keeping New York City tenants stable even while hundreds of thousands struggled to pay rent during the pandemic, when unemployment skyrocketed to 20% and is now at 9%.
“The fact that we had this law in place I think ensured that so many people who would have lost their homes didn’t,” said Jonathan Fox, director of the tenants’ rights unit at New York Legal Assistance Group. “The very unfortunate developments we saw in other jurisdictions, with people losing their homes during the pandemic left and right through no fault of their own, it just didn’t happen here.”
This included successfully filing a flurry of so-called lockout cases against landlords who changed locks in illegal attempts to circumvent the eviction moratorium.
But the potential expiration of the moratorium, on top of cases that were paused for the duration of the pandemic, has legal aid groups concerned over their ability to handle the workload.
As of last month, there were more than 220,000 eviction cases pending in New York City, according to state court officials
“The idea that there are enough legal service providers and enough attorneys for every case that’s coming out is just not true,” said Hillery, of Riseboro. “At some point, we’re all going to reach a tipping point where we’re inundated with cases we can’t adequately prepare for or give attention to like we previously could.”
Siddique says the fear is that the post-pandemic flood of cases will yield a surge in evictions and a new homelessness crisis.
“The courts, the judges themselves, are really counting on the availability of legal service providers to stem what all of us stakeholders in this housing eviction world fear that there will be on the heels of the pandemic,” he said. “The right to counsel will not necessarily prevent every single eviction, but it will prevent a great proportion of them.”