Right to Counsel Rollout Leaves Some Tenants Behind

Just over a year ago, the New York City Council passed “Right to Counsel,” a piece of legislation guaranteeing an attorney to all low-income New Yorkers facing eviction in housing court. As the initiative enters the second year of its five-year rollout, legal service providers are raising concerns that the zip code-based expansion plan is leaving tenants outside those areas vulnerable.

Right to Counsel currently extends to 15 zip codes, three in each of the five boroughs across New York City, with complete coverage mandated by law on July 31, 2018. At full implementation, the program is estimated to cover 125,000 households facing eviction each year and assist 400,000 New Yorkers, according to the 2017 annual report from the city’s Office of Civil Justice, which administers Right to Counsel. Until then, legal service organizations that previously provided tenant representation on a smaller scale — such as Legal Aid and Legal Services NYC — must represent every eligible tenant in the rolled-out zip codes. This requirement, coupled with limited resources to handle the ballooning caseloads, compels them to pass over tenants living in non-covered areas that they would have previously represented.

“We wind up taking more cases that we wouldn’t have taken before,” said a legal service supervising lawyer in the Manhattan housing court who did not want his name used because he was not authorized by his employer to speak on the record.

This requirement to represent all cases in certain zip codes looms large for community-based legal services groups like Housing Conservation Coordinators, a Hell’s Kitchen-based legal service provider. Before Right to Counsel, the organization was able to focus all their efforts inside their neighborhood. With Right to Counsel, lawyers are now assisting clients in the Upper West Side and Harlem.

“We do believe still in our community base model,” said Mary Fox, associate director of Housing Conservation Coordinators. “You do have to balance the attorney’s caseloads that might be inundated with right to counsel cases. … But there’s no doubt from what I hear that some people in our community might feel like they’re left out a little bit.”

Sometimes the best these service organizations can do, according to Fox, is provide brief legal advice to tenants who must represent themselves.

“Non-zip code cases we can take and give them like brief advice or what’s called pro-se services,” Fox said. “You can you can guide them, ‘Fill out this form and argue this.’”

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio assumed office in 2014, the city has poured tens of millions of dollars into legal services for low-income New Yorkers. That trend will likely continue with Right to Counsel. The Office of Civil Justice projects funding for tenant legal services to more than double from $62.2 million in 2017’s fiscal year to $155.5 million by fiscal year 2022. Those funds are handed out as grants from the city’s Office of Criminal Justice to the various legal services organizations. This money can be used for administrative costs and for hiring more lawyers to handle the influx of cases spurred by Right to Counsel. According to Fox and senior members of New York Legal Assistance Group and Legal Services NYC, since Right to Counsel was passed, these grants now require that a certain percentage of cases, around 60 or higher, come from the rolled-out zip codes. It’s this requirement, Fox said, that prompts legal service organizations to pass on cases they would have normally accepted several years ago.

According to Councilman Mark Levine, who, along with Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, was a primary co-sponsor of the Right to Counsel bill, the zip codes were selected by the Office of Criminal Justice based on which neighborhoods were sending the most tenants to homeless shelters.

“We acknowledge that the first round of zip codes were high-need areas,” he said.

Fox estimates that Housing Conservation Coordinators is taking fewer community cases than they did before the rollout, but believes—like others in the legal services world—that this is a temporary issue. The extra grant money coming into her organization due to expanding city funds as well as the addition of Hell’s Kitchen zip codes should allow the organization to focus back on the neighborhood. And until then, Right to Counsel is still helping needy tenants.

“There’s no doubt that I have clients that I would have stepped over in Penn Station because they would have been homeless,” said Fox.

The Office of Civil Justice did not return multiple requests for comment on this article.