Bill Could Provide Lawyers to Tenants in New York’s Housing Courts

Stanley Griffin spent more than six years living in his mother’s one-bedroom Harlem apartment, nursing her through her final illness. Though she died in July of last year, he still lives there, but his name is not on the lease.

So on a recent Friday morning, Mr. Griffin, who is 57, unemployed and suffering the effects of several strokes, walked into housing court on East 121st Street. He took a seat in the middle of the crowded gallery, his hands clasped tightly together, and gazed bewildered at the bustling courtroom. One thing remained clear: He faced eviction from the $320-a-month apartment, he had no lawyer, and he didn’t know what to do.

“It’s the first time I’ve been through this, and I don’t have a clue,” Mr. Griffin said.

For fair-housing advocates, a lawyer is a necessity for those facing the complex legal terrain of landlord-tenant disputes. And those tenants may soon be getting help, especially low-income renters like Mr. Griffin.

In February, the city announced that it would pour $93 million over the next five years into legal services for those facing eviction, an expansion over last year’s commitment of $62 million. Those initiatives coincide with a bill sponsored by City Councilman Mark Levine, Democrat of Upper Manhattan, and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, Democrat of the Bronx, that would enshrine a universal right to counsel in housing court. It would make New York the first jurisdiction in the nation to do so, according to the National Coalition for the Civil Right to Counsel.

About three in four tenants go without legal counsel, according to data published last year by the city’s Office of Civil Justice. Nine out of 10 landlords, on the other hand, are represented, the Legal Aid Society reports.

“It’s been disastrous for tenants,” Mr. Levine said in a phone interview. “It’s led to tens of thousands of evictions a year and many thousands of cases in which the tenant leaves their apartment with no legal proceedings because they are intimidated or are offered a buyout under duress.”

The legislation, which was introduced three years ago, would provide lawyers to those with an income less than twice the federal poverty line. In New York, it would be single renters with an income under $44,000. The bill gained traction as the city wrestled with an affordable housing crisis and record numbers of homeless people.

By preventing wrongful evictions, experts say, the city could save as much as $320 million in homeless shelter costs and prevent the loss of affordable housing units.

Mr. Levine’s bill had plenty of grass-roots support. The Right to Counsel Coalition, a constellation of tenant advocates and legal service organizations, helped organize a public campaign backing the proposal, which included rallies and news conferences at the steps of City Hall.

Among the groups in the coalition was the Harlem Neighborhood Defenders, a public defender’s office on Lenox Avenue and 126th Street. Vichal Kumar, its managing attorney, said its 12-person housing court team of paralegals, lawyers and support staff takes on about 25 to 30 cases each week in court.

“We deal with a lot of cases that are ripe in northern Manhattan, which are cases where tenants facing eviction from their rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartments,” Mr. Kumar said. “Many of which feel just like attempts to push clients out of their affordable apartments.”

Andrew Scherer, the policy director for the Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School, said the coalition’s efforts came at a time when it could rely on sympathetic allies in the City Council and in the mayor’s office. He said he expected the legislation, which has strong backing, to pass.

Mr. Scherer noted that support for the bill from Mayor Bill de Blasio coincides with the mayor’s need to burnish his progressive credentials.

“Frankly, it’s also an election year,” Mr. Scherer said. “I think the mayor also wants to distinguish himself as somebody who cares about low-income people and does the right thing. That didn’t hurt either.”

Back in housing court, Shavonne Honor, an advocate for those facing housing crises, met Mr. Griffin and tried to help him navigate the court routine, even though she herself was unfamiliar with the process.

“The fact that we actually have people living in apartments, why are we not providing more legal resources to help keep them in these apartments if we can?” Ms. Honor said.

It turned out that the Housing Authority had not sent Mr. Griffin a required notice, so his next court date was scheduled for July 7. The earliest he could meet a public defender was June 24, only 12 days before his scheduled appearance. Ms. Honor said they were cautioned by the public defender that they might not be able to prepare an adequate defense in time.

“So now we’re just rolling back the clock and starting from the beginning,” she said.