City Council Member Levine Talks About the Success and Side Effects of Right to Counsel

New York City Council Member Mark Levine (Photo courtesy of Office of Council Member Levine)

It has just been over a year since the City Council passed the Right to Counsel law, which mandates legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction in New York City housing courts. Council member Mark Levine, a co-sponsor of the initial bill, believes the initiative is a success and that eviction rates have dropped. He has now co-sponsored a follow-up bill that would expand the number of tenants eligible to qualify for counsel when facing evictions by increasing the income threshold needed to qualify from 200 to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. The expansion, informally known as Right to Counsel 2.0, would also cover eviction cases held before administrative agencies and would provide counsel for appeals.

In an interview with reporters from The Ink, Levine conceded there were problems with the implementation. “The system is being stretched almost to the breaking point by the rapid growth,” he said.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What are the biggest challenges you have faced with Right to Counsel and who has opposed the legislation?

I’ve heard a mix of reactions from landlords and owners. …There was a split between REBNY, which is the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents larger, more corporate landlords who didn’t weigh in or at least not with any vigor and RSA, the Rent Stabilization Association. … I gave a talk at the New York City Bar Association, which…ended up being mostly landlord attorneys and I get a very, very hostile Q and A period. In the end, if your case is so weak that it gets blown up by having an attorney on the other side, you shouldn’t have brought the case.

With Right to Counsel, a lot of people are getting the help they need but some courts seem to be overburdened. Do you think Right to Counsel 2.0 is going to further impact the system?

The system is being stretched almost to the breaking point by the rapid growth. And I’m really sensitive to the cries I’ve heard from providers about feeling like they just can’t grow any faster because of the shortage of attorneys. There were horror stories of caseloads of 500 cases per attorney and it’s why we designed a five-year rollout of the program. …The courts weren’t designed for this and we need to ensure a space for a private consultation. In the early days of this implementation, a lot of this has happened out in the open. And that’s really not fair to the tenant who deserves the right to privacy. I’m quite confident that the system will grow to meet the demand. We’re also seeing a decrease in the number of cases that landlords are bringing.

New York has some of the country’s top law schools, including Columbia Law School. Is the city encouraging law students to consider working to help low-income tenants upon graduation?

New York law schools are engaged in conversations with the legal community on this. I think for a young law student, this is a great way to do social justice, work with the real impact that would still be intellectually challenging and all sorts of courtroom experience. …Law schools are excited about this, but that it’s probably just going to take some time to ramp up.

Right to Counsel 2.0 will increase the income threshold to 400 percent of the federal poverty line from 200 percent, making many more tenants eligible for free counsel. Why do you not expect an increase in caseloads at housing courts?

Landlords are getting the message. It’s a culture change in the tenant-landlord relationship and so as tenants start to understand that it’s going to be a more level playing field in the courts, they [the landlords] are not going to bring frivolous eviction cases. We’ve seen it in the numbers [which] in the first year led to a drop in the number of cases that landlords are bringing. …That’s because it’s simply not worth their time if they don’t think they’ll have the opportunity to use an eviction proceeding as leverage to get a tenant to walk away.

Attorneys in the Bronx have complained of lack of space in the courthouse, which may see more attorneys after the implementation of 2.0 version of the law. What is your solution to this problem?

I don’t have a solution except to say we’re worried about it and that the crowding is only going to get worse unless we do see a dramatic drop in the number of cases. …But I don’t think it’s going to be enough to overcome the space challenges.

Other than evictions, what metrics is the City Council using to determine whether Right to Counsel is a success? Is this a potential solution to homelessness?

I would support this simply based on my sense of justice and fairness. A proceeding that has stakes this high requires a level playing field and we achieved that. If we get tenants’ attorneys, I also hope and expect to see a drop in the eviction rate. We have early indication that that’s already happening. I would ultimately expect this to impact the flow of families into shelters where the number one…class of people in shelters is now families. It’s not single adults. And the number one reason for families winding up in the shelters is not mental illness or substance abuse. It is eviction.