At Overdue Hearing, Advocates Push NYC to Fulfill Promise of Housing Court Help for Low-Income Tenants

The city’s landmark Right to Counsel law was the country’s first to guarantee legal representation in housing court to low-income tenants most at risk for eviction. But advocates and providers say it’s been undermined in recent months as the courts schedule eviction cases faster than there are available attorneys to take them. “When the law was first passed, it worked,” Ruth Riddick, a Flatbush tenant, testified Friday at a city hearing on the initiative.

Annie Iezzi

Ruth Riddick, a Flatbush tenant and member of the Right to Counsel Coalition, at an in-person broadcast of the city’s hearing on the program Friday.

The last way most New Yorkers want to spend a Friday night is attending a public hearing on Zoom. But last week, more than 150 tenants, advocates, lawyers, landlords and elected officials tuned into the hearing on “Universal Access to Counsel” hosted by the Office of Civil Justice.

In January, City Limits reported that the OCJ did not host a public hearing in 2022, even though the legislation that established the program, also known as Right to Counsel, mandates it hold at least one hearing a year. The lapse was especially egregious during a time when the number of tenants heading to housing court with the help of an attorney has dropped steeply—the result, advocates say, of a court system scheduling eviction cases faster than there are available housing attorneys to take them.

The Friday night hearing felt to some like a similar snub.

“Despite the hearing being designed to discourage participation, RTC is too important,” wrote the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition in its media advisory for the event. The Coalition, which pushed for Right to Counsel to become law, hosted an in-person broadcast of the hearing at its offices in SOHO, where members offered group testimony over Zoom.

New York City’s Right to Counsel law was the country’s first to guarantee representation in housing court to the tenants most at risk for eviction: those within 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Before the law went into effect in 2017, just 1 percent of tenants facing eviction in New York City had a lawyer—something experts say greatly increases someone’s chances of remaining in their home—according to estimates by NYU’s Furman Center.

More recent numbers cited by the NYC Eviction Crisis Monitor, an online tracking tool created by the housing advocacy groups Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD) and other members of the Housing Data Coalition, show that the number of city tenants facing eviction taken to court in January 2022 who had a lawyer climbed to 66 percent, regardless of income (it should be noted that the Monitor and Furman Center used different methodologies in their calculations).*

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