Why do we need Right to Counsel outside of NYC?
Like tenants in NYC, tenants living in the rest of the state suffer from a devastating eviction crisis, facilitated by unacceptably low rates of representation in housing court. In 2019, landlords sued an average of 1 out of every 8 tenant households in the largest cities in the state outside of NYC.
As of early 2023, there are nearly 180,000 active eviction cases across the state, and in 2022, city and district courts alone issued nearly 42,000 warrants of eviction, with Erie County seeing the second highest rate after Brooklyn; and Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties experiencing some of the next highest rates of eviction.
The lack of RTC is a main driver of the eviction crisis. In some places across the state, tenants have essentially no access to counsel. In Albany, for example, only about 1.3% of tenants have an attorney in eviction court, compared to 92-94% of landlords. In other places across the state where tenants have greater access to counsel, legal services providers are experiencing unmanageably high caseloads that impact tenants’ experience and outcomes, and that push attorneys out of the housing law practice. In Erie County, some attorneys handle anywhere from 500-700 cases per year, when an ideal caseload would be approximately 40 open and active cases per attorney at any one time.
With the passage of Statewide RTC, 46,600 tenant households outside NYC will receive legal representation. Tenants will have representation not only when their landlord sues them, but when they want to sue their landlords–pushing courts outside of NYC to enforce tenants’ rights to dignified, healthy and safe homes.
The Governor allocated $35 million in last year’s budget for upstate legal eviction defense–isn’t this enough?
This funding builds towards a comprehensive housing legal services system in New York State. But it isn’t nearly enough. Statewide RTC does much more than any piecemeal funding could do. It will:
- establish a universal right to free and full legal representation for New Yorkers facing eviction. Rights are permanent, they change the behavior of landlords and the practices of courts, and they create space for tenants to organize and fight to stay in their homes,
- mandate that courts uphold tenants’ rights, ensuring that tenants know about their RTC, have the resources to connect to an attorney, and adjourn cases until tenants have had time to do so.
- create a Right to Counsel for cases that are almost never covered by existing services: illegal lock-outs, instances of retaliation, harassment and neglect of repairs on the part of landlords, subsidy terminations and more, and
- support vital tenant organizing which will ensure tenants know about and can fight for their rights. With almost no resources for community organizing across the state, countless tenants remain unaware of their rights; and those that do frequently face retaliation from landlords when they organize to assert those rights.
What about small landlords? How will Right to Counsel impact them?
A 2022 report from JPMorgan Chase found that landlords in New York City, as well as other major American cities, made MORE MONEY – in some cases, dramatically – during the pandemic, as they cut their expenses to account for declining revenue. Meanwhile, working class and poor tenants struggled to stay afloat.
In addition to the disproportionate challenges tenants face compared to owners (even small landlords), analysis shows that small landlords will be less impacted by RTC than large landlords. Analysis by JustFix.nyc showed that the typical rent–paying New Yorker has a large landlord, and that larger landlords evict more tenants, and at higher rates, compared to small landlords.
Small landlords who are homeowners facing foreclosure may benefit from Right to Counsel. Language in the legislation is broad enough to cover homeowners in distress, but our movement needs the support of organized homeowners if our enacted legislation is to provide these protections in practice! Get in touch if you are a homeowner hoping to support the Right to Counsel movement.
Are there enough lawyers to guarantee that everyone who needs a Right to Counsel lawyer has one?
Statewide Right to Counsel will mandate the courts honor and enforce Right to Counsel: the bill requires that courts notify tenants of their RTC, give them the info they need to reach an attorney, and adjourn cases until they’ve been able to connect with one. RTC will mandate the courts uphold Right to Counsel and match the pace that cases move forward to attorney capacity. You can read more about how Statewide Right to Counsel addresses issues of attorney capacity here.
The Statewide RTC bill also accounts for the time that legal services providers will need to hire, train, and support the new attorneys, paralegals, and support staff and gives the state time to coordinate with the courts to implement the new right. Statewide RTC legislation will allow the state to phase in the right over a period of five years. Furthermore, in our coalition’s FY 2024 Budget Proposal, we demanded that the state allocate $12 million to support providers in hiring and training new talent in housing practice. This money could fund law school clinics, summer fellowships, and other methods of attracting attorneys to New York’s civil law practices.
We also created a tenant-attorney pipeline working group within our coalition, which has focused on building a cohort of highly qualified and effective lawyers and supervisors to implement RTC. To do this, we have been promoting greater attention to housing rights advocacy in law school instruction and changing attitudes in law schools so that becoming a housing rights advocate is seen as an exciting, transformative and desirable career choice. Once RTC passes at the state level, these efforts could be replicated and expanded statewide
I’ve heard there are issues with RTC’s implementation in New York City–what’s going on there? How can we implement RTC upstate when tenants aren’t getting attorneys in NYC?
The crisis in NYC is EXACTLY why we need Statewide RTC! The problem in NYC is that the state court system isn’t bound to uphold city laws. Instead of respecting tenants’ Right to Counsel, courts are moving eviction cases at a pace that outpaces the capacity of the legal services providers. There is no reason eviction cases need to move with such speed. With Statewide RTC, courts would be required to uphold tenants’ rights and adjourn cases until lawyers can represent tenants.
What does Statewide Right to Counsel do for NYC tenants?
Passing Statewide RTC would strengthen and expand the rights currently afforded to tenants in NYC:
- As of now, ONLY NYC tenants facing eviction with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level are eligible for counsel; when the statewide bill passes, ALL tenants will have Right to Counsel. In NYC, Statewide RTC will extend RTC to at least 215,000 tenants; and in 2022, if Statewide RTC had already been law, at least 55,000 more NYC tenants who faced eviction could have benefited.
- As of now, eligible NYC tenants have RTC only in eviction cases in NYC Housing Court and NYCHA administrative hearings; when the statewide bill passes, all tenants will have a Right to Counsel for ANY case that could result in a tenant losing their housing, including illegal lockouts, repairs cases & more.
- As of now, city law does not require the courts, judges, or landlords to do anything to ensure that tenants know about and can use their Right to Counsel; when the statewide bill passes, the courts, judges, and landlords will be required to ensure that ALL tenants know about and can use their Right to Counsel–solving the current crisis caused by New York State’s court administration.
In our FY 2024 Budget Proposal, we also demanded that the state allocate $67 million in year one of Statewide RTC’s implementation to support an expansion and strengthening of RTC in the city. NYC's existing Right to Counsel is not adequately funded to ensure best practices, nor does it cover all NYC tenants facing eviction. We are also demanding $5 million to increase tenant organizing in NYC.
See our Fact Sheet on how Statewide RTC would benefit NYC tenants.
How will unregulated tenants benefit from Right to Counsel?
RTC reduces evictions and protects tenants in court, no matter their type of housing.
All tenants have access to legal defenses and can benefit from having an attorney. For example, all tenants have potential defenses relating to: landlord retaliation when a tenant tries to enforce their rights, proper service of court papers, proper notice before a case is filed, and the landlord's failure to maintain the property in good repair. Most tenants won't even know that they have these defenses if they don't have a lawyer, let alone how to use them in court.
Both regulated and unregulated tenants in NYC have already seen a clear benefit following RTC’s passage in 2017. In the first two years of RTC’s phase-in, 84% of the tenants who had an RTC lawyer remained in their homes and eviction cases filed by landlords fell by 17% from 2018 to 2019.
Across the country, most places that have passed RTC don’t have rent regulation. For example, in Cleveland, 93% of tenants were able to avoid an eviction or involuntary move.
An independent financial firm found that in other cities and states that have passed RTC, RTC consistently leads to more than 90% of tenants avoiding displacement.
How would Right to Counsel and Good Cause eviction work together?
RTC and Good Cause eviction are powerful tools that will help tenants organize their buildings, fight evictions, and remain in their homes. Good Cause would give every tenant in New York State the right to a renewal lease, and protections against rent increases past a certain threshold. RTC will ensure that more tenants are able to raise the Good Cause defense in court, as we know we can’t rely on landlords or the court system to uphold tenant protections.
The combination of RTC and Good Cause will encourage tenant organizing. With RTC and Good Cause, landlords will have a harder time preying on tenants’ fear of eviction–tenants will have more eviction protections and once in court, tenants will know their rights and be emboldened to fight back with a lawyer by their side. Evictions are SO easy for landlords to do. Laws like Good Cause and Right to Counsel change the amount of power landlords have over tenants. To learn more about how Right to Counsel has already encouraged organizing in NYC, see our report, Organizing is Different Now: How the Right to Counsel Strengthens the Tenant Movement in New York City.
With both laws in place, the number of evictions carried out each year (both formal and informal) would decrease, if not plummet! For example, in NYC, with RTC alone, evictions have gone down by about 40%. Good Cause and RTC working together would massively drive down the eviction crisis!
How do Right to Counsel and the Tenant Dignity and Safe Housing Act work together?
While landlords can sue tenants for eviction statewide, many tenants outside NYC often cannot sue their landlords about unsafe conditions. The Tenant Dignity and Safe Housing Act (TDSHA), passed in 2022, changed this by creating a simplified procedure for tenants outside of NYC to sue landlords for repairs, win rent abatements and rent reductions.
When RTC is enacted into law, tenants will be able to sue landlords for repairs and have a FREE lawyer to help them do it. This will push the court system to support and enforce tenants’ rights to dignified, healthy and safe homes. The combination of these protections will also support tenant organizing: when tenants can take actions to get repairs, address unsafe conditions and improve their housing, they have more stability, better health, and more time to devote to organizing with their neighbors.