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City move to give tenants legal aid draws ire of landlords

By Sabina Mollot

The City Council has voted overwhelmingly to support the right of tenants facing eviction to access free legal representation.

In a vote at City Hall last week, 42 Council members backed the new bill, with three opposed and one abstention.
Mayor Bill be Blasio praised the legislation, saying prevention was “a key component” of his administration’s plan to tackle the homeless crisis.

“Everyone, no matter their income level, deserves access to counsel to stop wrongful evictions and keep their homes,” de Blasio said.

However, the city’s landlords have spoken out against the new legislation, saying it will only hurt hard-press multifamily landlords further.

Council Member Vanessa Gibson, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Mark Levine at the vote on the legislation. Photo via Mark Levine’s Twitter page

“We think this is a good concept and a positive step forward, but unfortunately it will serve only to delay the inevitable since the majority of eviction cases involve tenants’ inability to pay rent,ˮ said Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association of the proposal to guarantee low-income residents facing eviction legal representation.

“This will create a cash crisis among small building owners that will result in their own inability to pay heating oil and repair bills, and the property taxes and water rates that de Blasio keeps raising,” Strasburg added.

The mayor has already indicated his support for the bill, which was sponsored by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson. The legislation, introduced in 2014, has since been pushed along by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, which is made up of dozens of civic, tenant and legal assistance organizations.

The legislation likely took three years to get voted on due to the cost, which is estimated at $155 million a year. That figure is based on $93 million to be added to city money that’s already budgeted for similar services, around $62 million, according to Andrew Scherer, the policy director of Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School, who’s been deeply involved in the coalition’s efforts.

“It’s going to cost the city a sizable chunk of money,” said Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC. But, the tenant advocate argued, ultimately it will save even more money if it keeps tenants in their apartments and out of homeless shelters. “It’s definitely a game changer.”

According to data on the coalition’s website, studies show that half of evictions that take place wouldn’t be successful if tenants had attorneys. The coalition also believes the bill’s implementation will lead to fewer court cases, as it de-incentivizes frivolous, costly litigation from landlords.

In the last three years, the de Blasio administration has increased financing for tenant legal services from $6.4 million in 2013 to $62 million last year.

The effects showed — last year, evictions in New York City dropped 18 percent from 2015, and fell to their lowest level in a decade. De Blasio said that there was a 24 percent decrease in evictions in 2016, and the city is committed to passing legislation guaranteeing a right to counsel for those facing eviction.

JOE STRASBURG

However, Strasburg claimed the legal aid proposal “places the burden of rectifying de Blasio’s miserable failure to address the homeless crisis squarely on the shoulders of the largest providers of affordable housing – landlords of one million rent-stabilized apartments in the five boroughs.”

The landlord leader claimed that while, on the surface, the legislation appears to benefit tenants and affordable housing, free legal representation for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction “is more quick-fix-politics than sound long-term policy – and the politicians pushing these gimmicks couldn’t be more disingenuous.ˮ

Strasburg said that while the city has pumped more money into legal aid financing since 2014, homelessness has reached historic levels during the same three year period.

“How can de Blasio or any other elected official say with a straight face that the right to counsel initiative is a cure for homelessness? The argument can be made that it’s having the opposite effect,ˮ said Strasburg.

According to the RSA, non-payment of rent comprises approximately 90 percent of housing court cases and is cause by low income, not high rent. The landlord group also argues that the drop in the number of evictions in recent years is a result of increased government rental assistance rather than legal aid.

“Even with all of the free legal representation available, it’s not keeping low-income tenants in their homes – because no matter how low the rent is, these tenants still need even more government subsidy,ˮ said Strasburg.

The RSA is urging the City Council and Democrats in the New York State Assembly to support the Hevesi-Klein “Home Stability Support” initiative proposed by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi and State Senator Jeffrey Klein.

State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi’s Home Stability Support program would supplement the rents of public assistance-eligible tenants facing homelessness or eviction, while a State Senate bill – Tenant Rent Increase Exemption – would permanently freeze the rents of tenants with annual incomes of up to $50,000 who pay half of that income toward their rent.

“Until City Hall realizes that politically expedient, minimal impact programs like the right to counsel is just throwing good money after bad – rather than supporting sound initiatives like Hevesi-Klein Home Stability Support – tenants and owners can just expect more politics over policy when it comes to affordable housing,ˮ added Strasburg.

To be eligible for the legal aid, a household income needs to be no higher than 200 percent of the federally established poverty line, which is at $48,500 for a family of four.

New Yorkers who are not income eligible for free counsel would get “brief legal assistance,” according to a City Council press release.

Additionally, the legislation calls for assistance for NYCHA residents with administrative lease termination proceedings beginning in October.

The plan will be phased in over five years via zip codes, with seniors, the disabled and the formerly homeless to be given priority.

“We don’t want everybody to expect they’ll get counsel between today and tomorrow,” said Andrew Scherer. “It’s a lot of cases and they need to hire a lot of attorneys. They need to rent new offices.”

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