Peeling paint and mold in the bathroom of a NYCHA apartment. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

The New York City Council member who made a successful push for a law to ensure that low-income tenants facing proceedings in Housing Court have an attorney at their side says the law should be expanded to cover a wider range of incomes.

The city’s right to counsel law, which was implemented last year and is the first of its kind in the country, guarantees representation to tenants facing eviction and whose income is 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less.

The law, which Councilman Mark Levine had pushed for since 2014, pays for tenants’ lawyers by gradually increasing the city’s investment in legal services to $155 million by 2022.

The law was passed as the city was increasing its investment in providing legal services for tenants.

The city’s investment in tenants’ legal services grew from $6 million in its 2013 fiscal year to $77 million in its 2018 fiscal year. During that time, the axiom that virtually no tenant showed up to Housing Court no longer rang true. One study found that, during a study period in 2016, about 27 percent of tenants appearing in Housing Court had attorneys.

Since the law passed, Levine said, the number of landlords’ filings to evict tenants has declined.

“The game has changed and now they know they’ll have to face an attorney on the other side,” Levine said.

But Levine, who represents several neighborhoods in northern Manhattan, thinks the law could do more, and has introduced a bill that would expand eligibility to tenants who are at 400 percent of the poverty level or below, which would cover a tenant working 40 hours per week at $15 per hour, as well as allow tenants to lawyer up for appeals before the state supreme courts and the Appellate Terms.

The bill also guarantees representation for New York City Housing Authority residents facing administrative proceedings, Levine said.

“If the city is doing its job right, then it has nothing to worry about,” Levine said of providing attorneys for NYCHA residents.

The bill passed last year was supposed to create a program to provide legal services for NYCHA residents by October 2017 and, while a program has been established, the city is still in the process of ensuring that NYCHA residents are provided with attorneys, said Marika Dias, director of the Tenants Rights Campaign for Legal Services NYC.

Dias said that the key provision of the proposed legislation is ensuring that both tenants and NYCHA residents alike have lawyers for their respective appeals processes, a situation that she said is more likely to occur if tenants are represented from square one.

“It’s really essential that tenants have legal representation in those highly complex appeals if they are to be successful,” Dias said.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office did not answer an inquiry as to why there are delays behind providing attorneys for NYCHA residents.

“We will review the proposed bills, but we agree that New Yorkers should not lose their homes because they cannot afford a lawyer and stopping wrongful evictions from happening makes both ethical and economic sense,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the office.

Levine is co-sponsoring the legislation with Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who represents portions of the South Bronx and who co-led the push to pass the original right to counsel legislation; and Councilwoman Diana Ayala, who represents portions of the South Bronx and East Harlem.

Mitch Posilkin, general counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, said the organization does not oppose the concept of giving tenants a right to counsel.

But with respect to Levine’s proposal to expand the right, Posilkin expressed concern about the toll more tenants appearing with lawyers might be taking on the court system as well as on property owners.

With a lawyer on hand, tenants may be more likely to file motions and push affirmative defenses that may drag out proceedings longer than if tenants appeared pro se, he said. This allows tenants to stay put while keeping landlords waiting for cases to resolve while they have their own bills to pay.

“They’re representing their clients, as they should,” Posilkin said. “But people need to understand that the longer these take, it’s more of a burden on the property owner and it’s not a burden on the tenants themselves.”

The notion that a right to counsel may substantially affect how Housing Court functions has not been lost on court officials.

Before passage of the law, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore called for the creation of a special commission to focus on the future of New York City’s Housing Courts. A report released earlier this year recommended a host of changes for the courts, which handle about 250,000 cases annually, to make them better suited to an influx of represented tenants.

The recommendations include staggering morning calendar start times, assigning counsel as early as possible and allowing attorneys to appear on their clients’ behalf if there are concerns about work and child care.

“We support the notion of right to counsel for all litigants and, as part of the chief judge’s overhaul of New York City Housing Court, the elimination of backlogs and increased efficiencies would more than offset any nominal increases in costs,” said Office of Court Administration spokesman Lucian Chalfen.  

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