With an eye on a looming “avalanche” of evictions, some City Council members want to speed up the expansion of a law that guarantees legal representation for low-income tenants.
A proposed bill seeks to immediately apply the Right to Counsel law citywide. The measure, which has gradually been rolled out by ZIP code since 2017, was originally slated to include all tenants citywide by July 31, 2022. But with the eventual expiration of federal and state eviction protections, some Council members say that deadline should be moved up.
“We’re facing an avalanche of evictions now post moratorium. That changes everything,” Manhattan Council member Mark Levine said on Monday, during a hearing on the bill. “We must ensure that every single person facing an eviction as we come out of the pandemic has the basic security of having an attorney.”
The bill was introduced in August and is co-sponsored by Levine and Bronx Council member Vanessa Gibson.
But the de Blasio administration believes it is already carrying out the changes proposed in the bill. Jordan Dressler, civil justice coordinator with the city’s Human Resources Administration’s Office of Civil Justice, said that tenants citywide have had access to legal representation regardless of ZIP code during the pandemic. He said the agency has no intention of reinstating ZIP code-based eligibility requirements.
Dressler added that the legislation could “hinder” the agency’s ability to provide free legal services to tenants who are dealing with issues that fall outside of the Right to Counsel’s purview. The law covers low-income tenants facing eviction.
“This is a legal landscape that can change on the dime,” he said.
He said city marshals have executed four residential evictions since the start of the pandemic, but landlords have filed some 3,700 motions in housing court seeking to proceed with cases that predated March 2020. Tenants involved in those cases all had access to legal representation, he said.
Since the passage of the 2017 law, studies have shown that evictions dropped in neighborhoods covered by the measure. Still, the city has struggled with ensuring that tenants in eligible ZIP codes are aware of their rights.
The pandemic has further confused matters. The state has issued various eviction protections over the last year, which often conflicted with guidance issued by the courts. In late December, the state barred most evictions for the next two months and enacted protections that will last until May. President Biden recently extended federal eviction protections through March.
Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association — which represents property owners — said that while his organization has supported the Right to Counsel, legislators should be “focusing their attention on far more pressing issues.”
“When the courts reopen, central to the discussion must be a practical strategy of how the courts and the city are going to help building owners — many already on the brink of bankruptcy — recoup months upon months of unpaid rent,” he said in a statement. “Right to counsel is important, but someone better start figuring out the back end of this rolling eviction moratorium, which has resulted in thousands of employed tenants — many who never lost their jobs — withholding rent payments because there are no repercussions.”