The city’s Right to Counsel law, expanded in May to cover all low-income tenants, offers free legal representation to those facing eviction. And although the program’s $166 million in funding this fiscal year might not be enough to protect all potential evictees, it is far more than renters elsewhere in the state get.
Gov. Kathy Hochul took a step Friday toward leveling the imbalance, announcing $25 million for organizations to provide legal help in parts of New York where it is not available now. Taking into account the estimated need upstate, that pot will likely be emptied far faster than the city’s.
In gauging how far the money, which came from Congress, will go, Independent Budget Office spokesperson Elizabeth Brown said one number is crucial: the cost per attorney.
IBO estimates the cost in the city to be about $3,300 per case, meaning the $166 million would help about 50,000 tenants.
Some 37,000 eviction proceedings are pending in New York City, according to Unified Court System data. If that sounds like a lot, consider that in 2019 the number was closer to 180,000 — even after dropping by about a third since 2013, the Furman Center found. (Pandemic eviction bans, court system shutdowns and billions of dollars in rent aid have severely curtailed filings.) So the city’s $166 million would be enough for less than 30 percent of eviction cases in a normal year.
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Based on accounts from the rest of the country, when the moratorium lapses in 2022, cases are expected to rise; though it’s anyone’s guess by how much. The vast majority of cases do not lead to evictions, but in some cases tenants leave before an order is issued.
Right to Counsel is available to tenants with a household income under 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Not surprisingly, the Furman Center found “residents in areas with higher filing rates were more economically disadvantaged.”
Even if only half of the tenants named in evictions filings in 2019 were eligible for Right to Counsel, the funding for fiscal year 2022 would still leave most of them unaided.
Upstate funding tells a grimmer tale.
Landlords filed 82,792 eviction cases outside of New York City in 2019. Using IBO’s cost-per-case number, those would require about $273 million in tenant aid, or 11 times what Hochul allocated Friday. Legal costs are typically lower upstate, but the allotment still figures to be well short of demand.
Still, the organizations awarded funding are of the mind that anything is better than nothing.
“Is it enough? I don’t know,” said Lillian Moy, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, which got $4 million to service tenants in Albany and the North Country.
“It’s going to make a dent, for sure,” she said, adding the funds would help serve the area’s low-income, rural communities where free representation is very limited or nonexistent.
The grant is a big step up from the $480,000 the organization receives from the state annually for tenant legal aid.
Landlords are generally not fans of the program. They note that small landlords, who often cannot afford lawyers to pursue nonpaying tenants, get no taxpayer-funded legal assistance.
Ellen Davidson, staff attorney at New York City’s Legal Aid Society, said the $25 million was likely not intended “to address the state’s need.” Still, the money, or lack thereof, could draw attention to calls for a statewide Right to Counsel program.
Legislation introduced in June, backed by the lobbying group Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, would guarantee every New York tenant facing eviction the right to a lawyer. It is likely to resurface when state lawmakers reconvene in January.