The New York City Council is considering legislation that would make New York City the first jurisdiction in the nation that would confer the right to counsel in housing court for low-income persons.
The bill would guarantee civil legal counsel for low-income tenants in an eviction or foreclosure proceeding, so long as they meet the eligibility cut-off on gross income set at 200% of the federal poverty line (or about $48,600 for a family of four). A lawyer would be appointed by a “civil justice coordinator” from a list of pre-approved legal organizations. The City of New York would then foot the bill for the legal work.
New York City is considering the measure in response to a report published in June by the newly created Office of Civil Justice that found that more than 70 percent of low-income tenants in New York City go without legal representation in Housing Court, while landlords almost always appear with counsel. Last year, New York City had over 22,000 evictions ordered. Many see an inequity in bargaining power, relying on anecdotal accounts of tenants facing an uphill court battle.
The bill is supported by the New York City Bar Association and traditional tenant rights advocates, as well as many high ranking city officials. There is even a website dedicated to the initiative. Taxpayers may not be too thrilled with the potential cost to taxpayers, which are estimated by the Wall Street Journal reports to be about about $200 million a year, but will be more than offset by decreases in costs to operating homeless shelters and affordable housing costs savings.
This effort is the latest in advocates fighting to extend the right to counsel. A federal appeals court shot down a class action over whether poor children in immigration proceedings have a right to government-appointed counsel.
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