‘Universal’ advice: Lawyers want to remove income caps for Housing Court help

If a New York family of three earns $46,060 or less a year, they can hire a state-funded attorney to help them in Housing Court, thanks to the relatively new “Right to a lawyer “.

But if that same family brings home anything above that modest amount — which is technically 200% above the federal poverty level but still tough in New York City — they’re not guaranteed free representation and could be forced to deal with issues like eviction proceedings without legal help.

Tenants’ rights supporters want to see that changed through ‘universal right to counsel’ bills pending in Albany, and point to new court data collected during the pandemic that shows just how much household demand exceeds the current income threshold.

“These tenants are in a place where they’re still being hit by eviction pressures because New York City rents are really, really high,” said Oksana Miranova, housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society and author of a recent study on the city. Bureau of Civil Justice data on users of Right to Counsel services.

The office, part of the city’s social services agency, operates the free attorney program.

Its analysis found that more than 10% of tenants served by the program between July 2020 and June 2021 were over the income limit.

In New York, even 300% of the poverty line — $69,090 combined annual income for a family of three — doesn’t necessarily mean you have the money to defend a court case.

“If you’re in this space where you’re above 200% of the federal poverty level, but you’re not very wealthy, you won’t have enough money to hire lawyers,” Miranova said. .

A special moment

The data offers a fleeting glimpse of the overall demand for lawyers, as during the COVID crisis, courts removed income restrictions and allowed anyone access to free lawyers, regardless of household income .

But this rule change isn’t necessarily permanent, and it’s up to individual legal service organizations — like the Legal Aid Society, Take Root Justice or Bronx Defenders — to decide whether they can support these above-the-threshold clients. of income.

And those groups are particularly overwhelmed right now, they said. Adriene Holder, the attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s civil practice, said right-to-representation cases have doubled in the Bronx since this time last year.

Holder said changing the rules to open the Legal Department to everyone was “the right thing to do” during the COVID-19 crisis. But now, with the backlog of court cases, the eviction moratorium ended and an industry-wide shortage of lawyers, legal groups are “starting to feel this capacity crunch.”

She added: “It’s kind of a recipe for a lot of concerns about our ability to properly represent all of these tenants.”

Already, some tenants have been forced to move forward with eviction cases without lawyers to help them, Gothamist reported Wednesday.

Looking for a slowdown

In the short term, the Right to Counsel Coalition – which includes Legal Aid and many other legal groups – has pushed administrators of the justice system to suspend new cases or slow the number of cases on the court calendar. , to deal with a backlog of pre-pandemic cases, 2020 and 2021.

Susanna Blankley, coordinator of the RTC Coalition, said a directive on the matter from New York’s chief administrative judge, Lawrence Marks, was needed.

“If you leave it up to any individual judge, then it’s not consistent across the city and you’ll get a lot of different kinds of results,” she said.

Bronx Housing Court at 1118 Grand Concourse.
Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

But the state’s Office of Court Administration denied that request for a slowdown, as Law360 reported last week, and said attorney groups should direct their concerns to the Office of Civil Justice, or OCJ.

Lucian Chalfen, spokesperson for the Office of Courts Administration, doubled down on that rejection in a statement to THE CITY on Wednesday, saying legal providers “need to get their homes in order” and not “try to project their problems of capacity on the court, which works tirelessly to move cases forward and reduce backlogs.

Still, despite current staffing challenges to provide legal representation in Housing Court, advocates say universal right to counsel is the long-term way forward.

Holder deals with staffing shortages firsthand and manages numerous attorneys with rapidly increasing caseloads. But she still supports state legislation.

“What the right to a lawyer has shown is that when people have a lawyer from the start of a case, it’s actually better for everyone,” Holder said. “It’s better for the justice system. It’s better for the tenant. And often it is better for the owner, believe it or not, to have someone who understands what will be needed to move the deal forward to some sort of completion.

Neha Sharma, spokesperson for DSS and OCJ, said the agency “continues to work closely with our network of legal service provider partners and the Office of Courts Management as we assess and are working to resolve any issues that may impact the cases of any New Yorkers who are entitled to free counsel.

A resounding success

As THE CITY previously reported, Right to Counsel has helped more than 65,500 New Yorkers facing eviction stay in their homes. In the last fiscal year, 71% of Housing Court tenants had legal representation. This is up from around 10% before the law, which was first passed by City Council in 2017 for high-need areas and then extended citywide by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2020.

The state legislature bills would not only remove any income limits for legal customers, but also extend the program to all of New York State, not just New York City.

Governor Kathy Hochul originated the idea of ​​expanding the right to a lawyer in theory, but charted a different course. In her state of the state legislative priorities unveiled in January, she suggested a new program that would expand the right to a lawyer in the upstate, but keep the income threshold at 200% of the poverty level. .

His office did not respond to a request for comment on the pending legislation.

Blankley of the RTC Coalition noted that the bills had 30 sponsors in the Assembly and 20 in the Senate and “a lot of momentum”.

In all five boroughs, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and new Upper Manhattan Councilmember Shaun Abreu called for at least raising the income limit to 400% of the poverty level for access to a lawyer.

This local bill, introduced in last year’s session, is to be reintroduced for consideration and has yet to be taken up by this year’s membership.

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