NYS tenants need a true RIGHT to Counsel in this year's state budget!

Our Right to Counsel movement has been organizing in NYC housing courts for more than a decade, and courts across the state since 2021–and during that time, we have met countless tenants whose lives were upended because they did not have legal representation and were forced to face eviction alone. For tenants facing eviction in housing court, having an attorney to fight alongside them is invaluable. In instances where tenants do have legal representation, we have seen that Right to Counsel works. Statistics have shown that in places across the U.S. where tenants have the Right to Counsel (RTC), landlords sue tenants less, tenants are more likely to show up to court when they know they have the support of an attorney, and families are able to remain in their homes. That’s why, after NYC’s historic passage of the first-ever RTC for tenants in 2017, over 20 cities, states, and counties across the U.S. have passed Right to Counsel laws.

It’s also why our movement for a Statewide Right to Counsel for ALL New Yorkers has gained so much ground recently: New Yorkers and our elected officials know that Statewide RTC is necessary to stem the ever-growing crises of eviction and homelessness in our state and ensure that the rights of ALL are upheld in court. Our legislation (S2721 May) is now supported by over 200 organizations statewide, has a majority of cosponsors in the state Senate, and was included in the Black Puerto Rican Hispanic Asian Caucus’s People’s Budget this year. Earlier this month, more than 40 civil legal services providers also called on state leadership to pass and fund the bill, as did the NYC Bar

And yet, state leadership has stopped short of proposing funding and legislation to establish a Right to Counsel for tenants in the budget this session. Both the Senate and the Assembly One-House Budget resolutions called for the establishment of a new state agency, the Office of Civil Representation, to administer funds for eviction legal services. They also called for funding to set up the office and to expand civil legal services resources across the state.

This is a step in the right direction, but it fails to address the scope of the urgent crisis we are facing on the ground, because this proposed office has no mandate to fund or enforce a Right to Counsel

A guaranteed and fully funded Right to Counsel will make it harder for landlords to take advantage of abysmally low rates of tenant representation and will deter them from bringing frivolous, abusive lawsuits. It will also empower tenants to show up to court to fight their cases, and organize to assert their rights at home. When tenants know they have counsel to protect them, they’re much better equipped to demand their right to safe housing or fight illegal rent hikes, especially if they face retaliation from their landlords when they organize. 

RTC will also change the behavior of court staff and judges. A widespread culture of neglecting tenants’ rights pervades our court system. Tenants’ safety and security is often left solely in the hands of judges who are neither structurally positioned to assist tenants in court, nor generally inclined to do what is in their power to ensure tenants’ rights are upheld.

Consider the crisis with our local RTC law in NYC: After years of statistical success across a variety of metrics, our RTC law is now, on the whole, unenforced by NYC housing court judges. Every NYC tenant facing eviction who makes up to 200% of the Federal Poverty Line should be guaranteed counsel under the local law, and yet, for over a year, tens of thousands of tenants facing eviction have been denied access to their right to an attorney in housing court. Given that RTC continues to keep 84% of tenants who can actually access this right in their homes,judges’ flouting of the law means that thousands of New Yorkers are getting evicted every month who could have remained in their homes had courts granted them the time needed to access counsel. 

New York State tenants need the state to step in this year and establish a true RTC for all New Yorkers in the FY 2025 budget. Only the state legislature can regulate the court system. City and county governments cannot fix this crisis—it needs to be the state and it must be this year.

State legislators must take a bold stand for tenants in the budget and pass Statewide Right To Counsel without carve-outs for localities and counties that have an existing Right To Counsel law, and with mandated adjournments that do not rely on the discretion of judges to uphold this right.

Ensuring comprehensive representation in court is especially urgent given the recent legislative offensive from landlords pushing Individual Apartment Improvement increases and other rollbacks to the hard-won 2019 Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act (HSTPA). Our communities are still in the earliest years of recovering from a once-in-a-generation, global catastrophe. We do not need our elected leadership to pass legislation in the budget that undermines our rights and leaves us more vulnerable. 

With RTC, we can ensure the actual enforcement of our existing rights like those strengthened by the HSTPA, which were put in place to protect our health and stability, and as we fight and win new rights like Good Cause Eviction, we will be better equipped to enforce our victories and build the power of the tenant movement. We call on our elected leadership to protect New Yorkers this year: pass and fund an enforceable Statewide Right to Counsel for ALL!