Five days into April, legal services providers say they have taken all the Queens eviction cases they can manage for the month, warning that some tenants may face housing court unrepresented.
The Legal Aid Society, Legal Services NYC and New York Legal Assistance Group called on the courts to slow scheduling so low-income tenants could get representation under the city’s Right to Counsel program.
But attorneys have sounded the alarm for weeks with little action from the courts.
A month and a half after the moratorium lapsed, tenant attorneys told City Council members they were overwhelmed by caseloads. Lawyers added that the Office of Court Administration had taken to calendaring cases in which renters had yet to secure a lawyer with a “misplaced urgency.”
In a memo last Thursday, the court system agreed to adjourn cases by up to three weeks and use that time to match tenants with an available attorney.
But it is clear that it will make more concessions to stall cases. Courts spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told Law360 that attorneys’ “inability to manage their operations should not be offshored to the court system.”
Tenant advocates and attorneys said the adjustment will not solve the problem as there aren’t enough lawyers to meet demand.
Claire Gavin, a tenant attorney in Queens, told Law360 that her caseload had ballooned to 75 from an average of 40 before the pandemic.
Because the courts aren’t drumming up “extra attorneys,” Gavin said she couldn’t see how a few extra weeks would help.
Housing courts are slogging through a backlog of 200,000 eviction suits that piled up over the two-year eviction ban, plus the more than 38,000 cases filed since the beginning of the year. By comparison, about 262,000 eviction suits were filed throughout all of 2019, according to data from the state court system.
Landlords who have spent the pandemic waiting for a court date bristled at the thought of another delay.
Darshan Singh, a homeowner who brought a case in October 2019 to evict two squatters from a house he bought a month before, only just regained possession last month.
“The courts are already so slow!” Singh tweeted. “Just because [attorneys] can’t manage their business … doesn’t mean courts should essentially halt to do it for them.”
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” added Ann Korchak, spokesperson for the landlord group Small Property Owners of New York.
“The longer you can’t get an owner and tenant in front of a judge to try to resolve the issue, the tenant gets into larger and larger debt and the owner’s operating longer and longer without rent,” Korchak said.
Some attorneys attributed their heightened caseloads to the expansion of Right to Counsel last year, according to The City.
In May, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill accelerating the program’s rollout to immediately cover all zip codes. The program applies to tenants with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty line.
When the moratorium ended Jan. 15, legal service providers — who struggled to retain workers throughout the Great Resignation — saw caseloads surge.
“The Great Resignation, we are experiencing that both in turnover and the inability to hire in some instances,” said Lillian Hoy, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, in November.
Despite those pressures, tenant advocates are pushing for right-to-counsel statewide, one that guarantees representation regardless of income level, The City reported. The bill, introduced by Central New York Sen. Rachel Mayo, is sitting in the Senate Committee on Housing.
Queens landlord Vanie Mangal, who struggled with abusive tenants throughout the moratorium, wondered if stricter limits on right-to-counsel might be a better solution.
“Maybe they should shift from ‘all tenants get free legal representation; to only tenants who financially need it,” Mangal tweeted. “There’s tenants making 6 figure incomes.”