New York City Considers a “Civil Gideon” for Housing Court

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Proposed change to New York City’s code would provide free legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction.

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New York City may soon become the first city in the United States to provide free legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction. Can the city afford it?

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, thinks it may be possible. Last week, he stood in support of Intro 214, the “Right to Counsel” bill. Citing statistics that nearly 30,000 New York City families were evicted from their homes in 2013, he argued that “more must be done to protect tenants.”

Today, over 90 percent of tenants in New York City Housing Court do not have legal representation, while nearly 98 percent of landlords do. Tenants without legal representation reportedly receive warrants of eviction over four times more often than tenants with legal representation.

If passed, the recent New York City proposal will create a new office, the “Civil Justice Coordinator,” that will provide the infrastructure necessary to provide legal services for eligible individuals in covered proceedings. Ultimately, this should lead to guaranteed access to legal counsel for low-income tenants in New York City facing eviction, ejectment, or foreclosure proceedings.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright only requires state and local governments to provide effective legal representation in criminal cases, many activists today rally for a “civil Gideon,” or the right to counsel in noncriminal but high-stakes legal proceedings, such as housing eviction proceedings, child custody hearings, and civil domestic violence disputes.

Before seriously debating the merits of the bill, New York City Council must first consider what it can afford. The city’s Independent Budget Office estimates that providing free legal counsel to eligible individuals — those with incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line who face eviction proceedings — will cost $173 million annually. However, another estimate by the New York City Council itself puts the cost at closer to $276 million a year.

Whatever the correct figure, the price tag for a civil Gideon policy will be substantially higher than currently allocated to legal services for residents facing housing issues. Last year, the city only budgeted $20 million for free, anti-eviction legal services.

However, the city budget office also recognizes that the civil Gideon proposal could bring in some savings. The office estimates that the bill will save the city $196 million a year in homeless shelter costs. Looking solely at city funds without state or federal grants, the budget office projects the bill will cost the city $100 million to $200 million annually.

Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, the sponsors of the bill, complicate these numbers, claiming that the budget office did not take into account other savings in mental health services, unemployment benefits, and school busing costs. They believe that ultimately the bill will save the city money.

In expressing his support for the bill, Comptroller Stringer sounds serious about finding the necessary funds. “We are certainly going to analyze the mayor’s preliminary budget plan to figure out ways to prioritize what the city can do to subsidize a right to counsel process,” he said recently.

Comptroller Stringer’s statements arrive in the midst of New York City’s annual “budget dance.” From late January, when the mayor submits a preliminary budget, through the end of March, the City Council hosts a series of public hearings, formal reviews, and negotiation meetings on the city’s spending priorities. Activists claim that overlooked but important social programs — like after-school child care, library programs, and homeless support services — often suffer significant budget cuts by the end of the season.

With budgets tight, some commentators contend that a civil Gideon is counterproductive. In another context, attorney and former fellow at the American Enterprise Institute Ted Frank argued that a civil Gideon will translate into a “tremendous cost to taxpayers,” “higher rents,” and “legal services that often will not help” those who need them anyway. He explained that “the honest poor will be worse off as a group.”

In New York City, activists in support of the Right to Counsel bill assert otherwise. “It’s money well-spent, and a good way of approaching the problem,” argues Andrew Scherer, the Policy Director of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School.

In addition, Susanna Blankley of Community Action for Safer Apartments in the Bronx claims that many tenants have legal claims that would lower their housing costs, such as eligibility for abatement due to lack of heat or hot water. If tenants lack legal advocates to fight on their behalf, they will too often pay housing costs “that they wouldn’t necessarily have to pay if they had a lawyer to defend them,” she adds.

Housing issues are not restricted to New York City. Eviction rates continue to climb around the country, and the supply of affordable housing usually does not meet demand in most cities. When affordable housing is available, it usually can be found only in less desirable neighborhoods that have higher crime rates and lower quality public schools, and that are less accessible by public transit.

Some housing advocates are optimistic about improving access to affordable housing around the country, claiming that “2015 is going to be the ‘Tipping Point’ year for civil Gideon in the United States.”