"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 just the first year of RTC’s five-year phase-in, 84% of the tenants who had a lawyer under the law remained in their homes. In addition, evictions declined more than 5x faster in zip codes where the RTC law is currently in effect than in similar zip codes where it is not.

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.

    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. 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 other housing issues, like needed repairs and landlord harassment. Yet, we estimate that the majority of tenants don't know about RTC. A recent 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. There are 345,000 renter households in the zip codes where RTC is in effect. They ALL have a right to know about their RTC!

    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 Right to Counsel to nearly 12,000 people.
    • Conducted outreach to approximately 211 buildings.
    • Conducted 63 Know-Your-Rights Workshops reaching more than 1,300 tenants.
    • Formed 17 new tenants associations, in which over 400 tenants are active.
    • Stopped harassment in more than 500 households and helped almost 500 households get repairs.

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.

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

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

Resources: 

Sources:

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