New York City Proposing Bill to Provide Legal Aid to Victims of Foreclosure and Eviction
In a move that would help even the playing field in eviction and foreclosure lawsuits, the New York City Council is proposing to provide a lawyer to lower-income residents in these cases. If it succeeds, New York City will become the first municipality in the United States to combat the power imbalance between landlord and tenant in these types of cases.
The Supreme Court has guaranteed a lawyer to those facing the possibility of incarceration since the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963. But outside of criminal courts, Americans are not afforded the promise of counsel in the legal system. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to counsel in criminal cases, but the Constitution does not provide a similar right in civil cases.
Since 2005, the number of evictions in New York City has risen almost every year, reaching 28,849 in 2013, according to Housing Court Answers, a research and advocacy group that runs the information tables in the NYC Housing Court. Those studying the issue argue that as many as half of those evictions could have been averted with legal representation.
The New York City Council currently has before it a bill that would provide free legal representation to anyone facing eviction or foreclosure who has an income of less than twice the federal poverty line. In New York City, that means an individual making below $44,000. Tenants in about 80 percent of all housing court cases each year would qualify, according to a report commissioned by the New York City Bar Association.
This type of legal assistance is almost always the difference between success and failure for tenants. Landlord/tenant law can be confusing and complicated, and all legal matters require a basic knowledge of filing and pleading rules. Legal studies show that between 70 and 90 percent of litigants appear in court without a lawyer (pro se). The vast majority of landlords, on the other hand, are represented by seasoned attorneys who know the law and understand very well how the court system works. When tenants represent themselves in court, the result is that they end up being evicted almost half the time.
Studies have shown that tenants represented by counsel default less often, receive better settlements, and win more often at trial. With a lawyer, tenants win 90 percent of the time. Even when an eviction does happen, experienced attorneys can help families improve the otherwise bleak situation by assisting them in locating assistance programs to cover arrears, or by having judgments vacated so that their credit scores do not suffer. In 2013, for example, New York legal assistance housing attorneys helped approximately 96% of their clients avoid entering the homeless shelter system – the tenants may not have always kept their residences, but attorneys were able to either help find other solutions or buy time needed to relocate.
This bill has the strong backing of housing advocates, community leaders and legal services providers, as well as the private bar. Part of the reason is very pragmatic – this type of program could save the city money. The benefit of adequate representation in housing court goes beyond stabilizing and improving the lives of families. The New York Times recently reported on a number of efforts underway across the country to track the economic impact of equal representation in civil cases. In one example, a Boston Bar Association study found that for every one dollar spent on legal services, two to three dollars were saved by reductions in municipal expenses associated with eviction, including the cost of shelter, health care, and increases in public benefits.
This is not the first step New York City has taken to combat homelessness resulting from evictions. In an effort to combat homelessness, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has spent nearly $20 million over two years to provide lawyers for low-income tenants fighting evictions in Housing Court.