Funding just doubled for the city’s well-supported “right to counsel” initiative, turning the free legal aid pilot program into a full-fledged city service, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Councilmembers announced Sunday.
Low-income tenants who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level are now entitled to city-sponsored intervention in New York City Housing Court, where the vast majority of those tenants have had no legal counsel.
The program will drastically reduce the excessive rate of homelessness and the cost to taxpayers on homeless shelters and other services, officials say.
The initiative will target the “an epidemic of evictions," the bill's lead sponsor City Council Member Mark Levine told Metro. "We've had a bill since 2014 and from the beginning it felt like it was an uphill battle. It was the incredible coalition of advocates and the urgency of the issues that brought us here," he said.
The city plans to add $93 million to the program’s current $62 million annual budget, bringing the total investment to $155 million a year. Yet the program will actually provide taxpayers a savings of $320 million a year: The average cost of hiring an attorney is $2,400 is substantially less than the $36,000 cost for per shelter bed each year.
Levine expects the bill to be passed into law in the coming weeks, and will be phased into action over five years.
Tenants currently are on their own to find a lawyer who can work with them through the "right to counsel" pilot program. In the coming years, the court will assign a lawyer to tenants with time to prepare for court, and in some instances, will offer the legal aid at the court appearance as a last resort, Levine explained.
Tenants without attorneys are at an immense disadvantage in court when facing landlords who want to vacate rent-controlled apartments to charge market rates. But frequently, when the tenant does have representation, the landlords will drop the case.
It is a hard-fought victory for the activists and legislators who vehemently pulled for the bill. In December, Levine sent a letter with 6,763 signatures urging the mayor to prioritize the program.
Since the beginning of the tenant legal aid pilot two years ago, Levine said, evictions dropped 24 percent — allowing 40,000 people to stay in their homes. Once in full force, the program is expected to safeguard 400,000 New Yorkers a year.
“This agreement represents a huge step towards making New York City a more fair and equitable place,” Chris Widelo, associate state director for AARP New York, said in a statement.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. pointed out that the program is especially necessary while new affordable housing is being built, and that it is an "imperative that we provide tenants with the tools they need to stay in their communities during times of transformation."