"Right to Counsel, Power to Organize" Campaign

Right to Counsel (RTC) has been a huge success in stopping evictions of low-income New Yorkers. In the first two years of RTC’s five-year phase-in, 84% of the tenants who had a lawyer under the law remained in their homes. Evictions in RTC zip codes declined by 29% since the law was implemented in 2017, while evictions across the city have declined by 41% since 2013, when funding for tenant legal services began. In 2019 alone, evictions in NYC were down 15%. Analysis done by the Community Service Society into the citywide decline in evictions shows that Right to Counsel is the cause of most of the overall decline, as evictions have dropped more significantly in RTC zip codes than in others.

While RTC has been successful, there are still several ways NYC can expand its first-in-the-nation law. Other cities have already passed RTC laws that are even stronger than ours. San Francisco did not set income eligibility limits and Newark, NJ’s law covers appeals. NYC’s RTC law will be fully phased in by 2022. Now is the time for NYC to continue to set the standard for the nation and strengthen its RTC.

Our "Right to Counsel, Power to Organize" campaign is calling for new legislation to be passed that would expand NYC's current RTC law to ensure that nearly all tenants facing an eviction have RTC and know about it.

We are grateful that NYC Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, who championed the city's groundbreaking RTC legislation, have introduced two bills that would strengthen the law. Intro 1104 increases RTC's income eligibility level and expands the types of eviction cases covered by RTC. Intro 1529 requires the city to work with trusted tenant organizing groups to engage and educate tenants about their rights. 

Here is why we are calling for these essential expansions: 

  • Increase the income eligibility level:

    To be eligible for full legal representation under NYC’s current RTC law, a tenant’s household income must be 200% or below of the federal poverty guidelines. That is a yearly income of less than $24,980 for a single adult or less than $51,500 for a family of four. This means a single New Yorker working full-time and making the $15 minimum wage would not qualify. Faced with an eviction, working class tenants would not be able to afford a lawyer. Without a lawyer, these tenants are more likely to get evicted.

    We are calling for an increase of RTC’s income eligibility level from 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL) to 400% (which is a yearly income of $49,960 for a single adult and $103,000 for a family of four). Tenants with incomes between 200%-400% of the FPL make up an estimated 31% of tenants in housing court. And while they don’t currently qualify for full legal representation, more than 1/3 of these tenants experience housing hardships that indicate they are at-risk of eviction, such as being threatened with eviction, falling behind on rent, or moving in with other people. Doubling the income threshold may help an additional 56,000-71,000 households facing eviction each year in housing court, meaning almost everyone who is in housing court now would be eligible for full legal representation. 

  • Expand the law to cover more eviction cases: 

    Currently, RTC only covers eviction cases that take place in NYC’s housing courts. While most eviction cases are held there, several hundred are left to higher courts or administrative hearings. These include: Housing Preservation and Development administrative hearings for Mitchell-Lama residents, Supreme Court ejectment cases, and Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) cases. All low-income tenants facing eviction, regardless of their type of case, should have the right to a lawyer.

    Additionally, though the current law guarantees tenants a lawyer for the entirety of their cases, it does not cover appeals. With more tenants than ever being represented and winning their cases, landlords are filing more appeals. Without legal representation to defend their victories, tenants will be left alone when the final and most important decision is made.

  • Support tenant organizing: 

    While our work to stop evictions and decrease eviction filings is proving to be successful, we must also ensure that landlords don’t find other ways of forcing tenants to move out—outside of the legal court process. A report by Robin Hood found that 54% of forced moves that take place in NYC are the result of informal evictions, such a tenant leaving due being told to leave, landlord harassment, a lack of repairs, etc.  In order for RTC to continue to be effective, everyone needs to know about it, understand it, and use it as a tool to address all their housing issues. With all the new rent laws recently won in NY state, it is especially important that tenants fight for their rights, knowing that they have the right to a lawyer if their landlord did try to evict them in retaliation. When tenants don’t know or use their rights, they are more easily harassed out of their apartments. This leads to the displacement of mostly poor people of color in NYC.

    Yet, we estimate that the majority of tenants don't know about RTC. A survey done by volunteers at Bronx Housing Court found that 53% of tenants who had a right to a lawyer didn’t know about this right before arriving in court. This means tenants might decide not to appear in court, decline representation, sign agreements with landlord attorneys prior, decide not to ask for repairs in fear of being evicted, and a host of other severe consequencesIntro 1529 would require the city to support organizers who would work to ensure that tenants know about their Right to Counsel and feel supported using it. Everyone who is eligible for RTC has a right to know about it!

    Trusted tenant organizing groups can create an environment where tenants feel supported by a community that is working together to combat landlord abuse. And their work goes a long way. In 10 months, just 4 tenant organizers who were supported by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition—1 in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan: 

○ Distributed information about RTC to nearly 8,000 people.
○ Conducted outreach to approximately 200 buildings.
○ Conducted 75 Know-Your-Rights Workshops reaching more than 1,100 tenants.
○ Formed 26 new tenants associations, in which over 700 tenants are active.
○ Stopped harassment in more than 500 households.
○ Helped more than 400 households get repairs.
○ Helped more than 350 tenants apply for a rent reduction
○ Developed approximately 150 tenant leaders

Tenant organizing is powerful! But more resources are needed to ensure all low-income New Yorkers understand their rights. We are calling on the city to fund this organizing work essential to RTC’s success. RTC would be an even more powerful tool in stopping evictions if more tenants knew about it and used it.

Check out our video of tenants explaining why they want these bills passed: 

Join us in our work to make Right to Counsel stronger by signing our petition here!  

More than two-thirds of City Council Members support our bill—a major and rare feat! Check out this track sheet of Council Members who have signed on to our bills and contact yours if they haven't. Included on the 2nd page is a how-to guide and script: 




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