Fifty-seven years ago, the Supreme Court upheld providing counsel in criminal proceedings as a constitutional right: when life and liberty interests were at stake, the court’s Gideon v. Wainwright ruling held that individuals were entitled to a court-appointed attorney if they could not afford legal representation on their own. While it’s debatable whether the current criminal legal systems across this country properly implement the principles of due process and justice Gideon v. Wainwright embodied, we have come a far way toward ensuring individuals a fairer trial and a fairer fight no matter their income.
Losing a home is not the same as losing one’s liberty – being sent to jail – but it can feel awfully close. And the cascading consequences of eviction for an individual or family can seem really similar to those that can result from a criminal conviction. They are widely felt: tenants are ordered evicted in this City every single day courts are in session. This almost always happens after they appear without counsel and attempt to fight for their homes against landlords who are represented by seasoned attorneys. The playing field is in no way close to even.
We’ve known about this unfair system and its tragic results for some time, and have tried various ways to attack it – even bringing a case in New York State Supreme Court. But the problem continues, and in this time of ever-widening social and economic inequality, it is spiraling out of control. Rental costs far outpace households’ economic gains these past few years. Even the good news coming out of the recent U.S. Census report has to be put in proper context. The report found that New York City household incomes rose by 5.1 percent in 2015, to $55,752, and the poverty rate also dipped. But these two glimmers of economic hope must be squared with the fact that the 2015 median rent is 10 percent higher than it was in 2008 before the financial crisis hit.
Thankfully, help may be on the way. Supporters of a bill that would provide free legal counsel to low-income tenants in civil eviction proceedings are invoking Gideon v. Wainwright to call for an equivalent standard in New York City Housing Court. The bill is now before the City Council. They should pass it without further ado. Any qualms the Mayor’s office may have about funding the bill should be resolved. Eviction prevention is good housing policy, even more important than building new low income apartments. And allowing people to remain in the apartments and neighborhoods they call home is both right and fair.
The legislation before the Council would vastly improve upon initiatives rolled out in 2014 by the de Blasio Administration that created new and expanded existing legal services for lower-income tenants facing eviction proceedings and other housing-related legal matters. These initiatives have shown results: 27 percent of New Yorkers who appear in Housing Court are now represented by an attorney, according to a report this year by the NYC Office of Civil Justice. Compare that to 2013 when, according to the same report, only one percent of tenants in eviction proceedings were represented by an attorney while their landlord counterparts had lawyers in 99 percent of the cases. As important, from 2014 when legal services were increased to 2015, citywide evictions were down by 18 percent.
The mayor’s strategy to help lower-income tenants contest evictions is consistent with his administration’s overarching housing agenda to build and preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over the next eight years. Oddly, the de Blasio Administration has not yet embraced the right-to-counsel bill. More studies are required, the Administration says. I disagree: we have studied this enough.
It’s time to ensure that no tenant enters Housing Court legally overmatched simply because they are poor. Here’s why:
Rents that can be charged for vacant apartments in many neighborhoods across the city – including but not limited to those showing the conspicuous social changes we identify with gentrification – have risen well above what many tenants, regulated or not, are paying. Eviction is therefore a key link in a process by which unaffordable rents feed on themselves and lead to even more unaffordable rents.
In this economy, there continues to be a strong financial incentive for landlords to use all means at their disposal – including misuse of the courts and harassment – to remove tenants in place in order to create a vacancy and raise rents toward the highest amount the market will bear. And the resulting evictions cause an enormous amount of harm, including homelessness, disruptions that may lead to job loss, disruptions in schooling and loss of possessions.
We can slow the erosion of affordable housing in our city. It starts with seeing that ceasing unnecessary evictions is a central element of housing policy, as well as a matter of equal justice. Because every time we prevent the forced move of a tenant household, we save that household not only from the collateral consequences of eviction, but also from the near certainty of a substantial increase in rent in their new apartment above what they previously paid – even where the old rent was unaffordable and may well have contributed to their eviction. Providing a right to counsel to low income tenants is an essential element of the battle here. Pass the legislation, and do it quickly.