Testimony before the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare Regarding the Universal Access to Legal Services Law

Thank you to Chair Ayala and members of the Committee on General Welfare  for the opportunity to submit testimony regarding New York City’s Universal Access to Legal Services Law. The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) builds community power to win affordable housing and thriving, equitable neighborhoods for all New Yorkers. As a member organization of community groups across New York City, we use research, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to support our members in their work to build equity and justice in their neighborhoods and citywide.
Right to Counsel is a historic victory for tenants and is resoundingly effective. As the Office of Civil Justice (OCJ) has reported, 84% of tenants represented by a Right to Counsel attorney are able to stay in their homes.1 New York City’s Right to Counsel law has paved the way for tenants who are facing eviction to access legal representation in jurisdictions across the country. But New York City tenants’ Right to Counsel is in crisis. The courts have decided to calendar cases at a pace that legal services providers cannot handle and move cases forward regardless of whether eligible tenants are represented. This is a failure by our judges and elected officials, and it is resulting in thousands of tenants being evicted unnecessarily. It is the City’s responsibility to uphold the Right to Counsel that we passed, and the City is remaining silent and complicit in this crisis. We need the City Council, Administration, and Office of Civil Justice to call for tenants’ Right to Counsel to be upheld and made universal, not steamrolled.
ANHD unequivocally supports the Right to Counsel Coalition’s demands for the New York City Council to uphold our Universal Access to Legal Services (Right to Counsel) Law by:
  • Fully funding Right to Counsel. The lack of full funding for RTC is leading to attrition at legal services organizations and discouraging effective representation.  We need the City Council to further the legacy of Right to Counsel by adding at least $70 million dollars to fund Local Law 136
  • Calling on the Human Rights Administration to fund Local Law 53 immediately by releasing the FY2024 Request For Proposals for the $3.57 million they have allocated
  • Passing City Council Resolution 499 in support of Defend Right to Counsel legislation at the State level (S3254/A4993), which would mandate that the courts adjourn cases until eligible tenants are able to receive Right to Counsel. It is critical that this legislation be included in the budget and that the Council demand its passage.
  • Passing Resolution 345 in support of Statewide Right to Counsel (S2721/A1493) for all New York tenants. 
  • Publicly demanding that the courts pause all cases for eligible tenants who don’t have Right to Counsel until there is attorney capacity 
  • Ensuring that OCJ manage the waitlist of tenants to make sure that all tenants who have been denied Right to Counsel get representation
  • Ensuring that OCJ meets regularly with tenants and organizers to develop solutions and that it will comply with the law to hold annual hearings and release annual reports


Our analysis of data from the Office of Court Administration shows the extent of the crisis

ANHD, along with University Neighborhood Housing Program, JustFix, and BetaNYC, have been collaborating with the Right to Counsel Coalition for over four years to obtain, publish, and analyze housing court data from the Office of Court Administration (OCA). This data allows us to quantify the state of evictions in New York. With access to OCA data, we have been able to track trends in eviction filings throughout COVID and the implementation and expiration of various legal protections against evictions. 

Filings have taken off since the end of eviction protections

Despite multiple protections against evictions proceeding through the courts, landlords consistently filed eviction cases in large volumes throughout most of the pandemic. Over 82,000 residential evictions were filed in New York City between March 23, 2020 and January 15, 2022. Over 130,000 evictions have been filed since then.

Chart by ANHD. Data source: NYS Office of Court Administration via the Housing Data Coalition in collaboration with the Right to Counsel Coalition, available at github.com/housing-data-coalition/oca
As you are aware, advocates warned that the lifting of eviction protections would flood and overwhelm the courts. The Right to Counsel Coalition and the legal services providers that represent tenants in their eviction cases knew that there was not adequate infrastructure to handle all the eviction cases in the pipeline. But in contrast with the series of orders that accounted for the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic by slowing eviction cases, on January 15 2022, the courts reverted to the pre-pandemic status quo, with grave consequences. 
Since early last year, providers have not been able to take on all tenants facing eviction who are eligible for Right to Counsel. Tenant attorneys, who do their work because they care deeply about the right to housing of New York City’s most marginalized and vulnerable tenants, are overworked and exhausted. Over and over, they are facing the impossible choice of either turning tenants away, meaning that tenant may unnecessarily lose their home, or taking on so much work that they simply cannot do all of it with integrity. As a result, they are experiencing intense burnout, meaning that attorneys are leaving their organizations in droves, only exacerbating the problem. Unionized attorneys are striking in part due to these unsustainable caseloads. The situation is absolutely untenable and unjust to tenants and attorneys alike. 

Less than half of tenants have representation

In collaboration with the Right to Counsel Coalition and the other organizations involved in this work, ANHD calculated the “rate of representation” for eviction cases that were filed since January 15 of last year. To do this, we took all residential non-payment and holdover cases filed in New York City courts after that date that have had two scheduled appearances already occur. We excluded cases in which tenants never appeared. We then took the share of cases in which the defendant was represented by counsel or was marked as “SRL” - a self-represented litigant. By dividing the represented defendants by the total number of cases that met these criteria, we arrived at our rate of represented tenants. 
What we found was the following: out of all eviction cases that have been filed in New York City since eviction protections ended on January 15, 2022, only 47% of tenants who appeared in court2 have received representation in their case – whether through Right to Counsel or not. Because some of those tenants have private attorneys, the share of tenants with Right to Counsel representation is lower than 47%. The share of unrepresented tenants equates to over 19,000 households – 19,517 as of last week – who are facing eviction in court alone. In contrast, it has been estimated that 82% of households facing eviction should be eligible for Right to Counsel.3 This is the current state of affairs, and it is shockingly inadequate.
Chart by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) in collaboration with the Right to Counsel Coalition. Data source: NYS OCA.
Denying legal representation and protections in housing court impacts Black and brown tenants most. As a result of discriminatory housing policy, racist systems of urban development, segregation, wealth extraction, and disinvestment from communities of color, poor Black and brown tenants are most often the ones losing their homes through eviction. ANHD has found that evictions are filed more than twice as often in majority people of color zip codes compared to majority white zip codes.4 Evictions destabilize households and communities and fuel displacement. They are violent and disruptive, and result in tenants entering a shelter system that is under-resourced and an unaffordable, competitive housing market that prioritizes profit over people. They have a harmful impact on education, employment, relationships, and physical and mental health. New York has the power to change this, and it is the City’s responsibility to make sure we do.

Fully fund Right to Counsel

New York City must take all actions within its control to ensure Right to Counsel is implemented and upheld.
RTC must be fully funded in order to achieve its purpose. Legal services providers have communicated that RTC is currently funded at only 60-70% of its current cost, barring RTC from being upheld. The City must increase the budget for RTC by at least $70 million, while also aiming to increase funding to achieve best practices and enable RTC to reach its full potential. Funding for RTC must also be tied to the number of cases, so that we do not return to a cycle of insufficient implementation that denies tenants their right.
Additionally, Local Law 53 mandated the funding of tenant organizing in support of Right to Counsel, but despite allocating $3.6 million of funding, the Human Resources Administration (HRA) never released the Request for Proposals that was scheduled for November 2021. The Council must push HRA and the Office of Civil Justice (OCJ) to release this RFP immediately, so that tenant organizers may do their job to ensure that Right to Counsel is upheld and tenants have access to their rights.

Push the courts to change course

When properly implemented, RTC keeps 84% of tenants facing eviction in their home. But because of the decisions of our courts, RTC is failing to meet its mandate. We call on you to demand the following of the courts:
  • Issue an administrative order that mandates all eviction cases where a tenant is eligible for RTC be stayed until the tenant is able to retain an RTC attorney
  • Calendar new eviction cases only after all eligible tenants with currently pending cases have retained counsel for full representation.
  • Reduce the volume of eviction cases on court calendars so that the number of new cases each day matches legal service provider capacity to provide full representation to all eligible tenants.
  • Provide sufficient time between court dates to allow time for lawyers to complete essential work on each case, keeping in mind the current staffing shortages and work overload.
Senator Brad Holyman and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal have introduced legislation (S3254/A4993) that would mandate judges provide the necessary adjournments tenants need to get Right to Counsel. We are calling on you to pass Resolution 499 in support of this critical legislation, sending a strong message to your colleagues in the senate and assembly to include this critical legislation in the budget.

Support Statewide Right to Counsel

In addition to immediate measures to Defend RTC in New York City, we need Statewide legislation to fix the crisis in housing courts. Statewide Right to Counsel (S2721/A1493) not only expands RTC to all tenants across the State, it mandates that the court system uphold it. The legislation requires that courts notify tenants of their RTC, give them the information they need to reach an attorney, and adjourn cases until they have been able to connect with one, matching the pace of cases to attorney capacity. The courts have refused to solve the crisis on their own; legislation will mandate that they uphold the law.
It is imperative that Statewide Right to Counsel is not only passed this session but also fully funded. With adequate funding, providers will have a greater ability to hire not only attorneys, but social workers and other support staff critical to implementing Right to Counsel. We are fighting for $172 million in FY 24, $62.5 million of which would go to New York City.
The Council must support this legislation by passing Resolution 499 and urging your colleagues in the State legislature to pass and fund Statewide Right to Counsel now.

Ensure that OCJ is following its mandate

It is the responsibility of the Council to make sure that the OCJ, which was created to implement Right to Counsel and is responsible for upholding it, is fulfilling its mandate. Currently, OCJ is not doing so. OCJ is required by law to hold hearings and release reports annually on RTC, and did neither in 2022.
OCJ has a history of pushing the courts to make changes that are fully within their power in order to uphold RTC, such as adjusting calendars, posting accurate signage, and having judges make announcements to inform tenants of their rights and options. The implementation of RTC was a collaboration between OCJ and the courts. Now, OCJ is remaining silent and allowing legal service providers to take the blame for a problem that can only be solved by the courts.
OCJ used to meet regularly with members of the Right to Counsel Coalition, and under the new administration, they have not. We call on the Council to ensure that OCJ:
  • Manage the waitlist of tenants to make sure all tenants who have been denied RTC get a lawyer
  • Ensure that OCJ meets regularly with tenants and organizers to develop solutions
  • Ensure that OCJ complies with the law by holding annual hearings and releasing annual reports
Stable housing is critical to the overall health and wellness of individuals and communities, and we have the power and tools to ensure that stability for tenants. Housing court, as it is operating today, is failing to do so, and the Council must do everything in its power to solve the current crisis in housing courts.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. If you have any questions or for more information, please contact Lucy Block at lucy.b@anhd.org.
2 Instances in which tenants did not appear in court are excluded from this analysis.

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