Gotham Gazette

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No Tenant Should Face Eviction Without Representation: New York’s Budget Must Include and Fund the Right to Counsel

New Yorkers getting help (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

I was a teenager in the 1980s when I learned firsthand what it meant to face eviction and landlord harassment. Three different landlords, but they all used the same playbook: they failed to provide adequate heat, thinking they could take advantage of my family’s difficult economic situation. Allowing dangerous living conditions is a form of eviction in which landlords don’t even need to sue their tenants in court. Instead, they push tenants out with threats to their health and safety. Each year, countless tenants across our state are forced to self evict and countless others endure unsafe conditions in fear of asserting their rights and facing retaliation, or leaving their homes and finding nowhere affordable to go.

My family’s landlords were bullies who took advantage of how poverty and our court system make it tough to fight back when tenants’ rights are violated. My family faced intimidation and pressure not to defend ourselves and I was even assaulted by one of our landlords. But by the third landlord, my parents decided to stand their ground. They withheld the rent and put it in escrow. Unfortunately they were outmatched: the landlord had lawyers, while my parents couldn’t afford one. The courts allowed us one year in our apartment, but then we had to move, and pay back the rent we owed our landlord for all the months we had lived without heat. 

This experience drives my belief in the absolute need for a comprehensive, universal right to counsel for New Yorkers facing eviction. No one should face eviction without counsel in any form or venue – whether it be in a lawsuit brought by a landlord, neglect of repairs, a subsidy termination or an illegal lockout. With 92,000 homeless New Yorkers and the harms of eviction well-documented, the stakes are too high for us not to ensure that tenants have a fighting chance. 

The Statewide Right to Counsel (bill A.1493/S.2721) would remedy this with the guarantee of a free attorney for all New Yorkers in all types of court cases that could result in displacement. The state must act this year to pass and fund Right to Counsel through the budget, to help tenants fight to stay in their homes.

In 2021, tenants in 8% of privately-owned rental units in the city suffered under serious housing code violations, the New York City housing department’s “class C” violations that are “immediately hazardous” and violate a tenant’s legal right to safe and livable conditions. And this injustice is worse for Black and Latino New Yorkers, who are more than twice as likely to live in units with three or more maintenance deficiencies than white New Yorkers.

Unsafe and unfit housing stock plagues tenants across the state. In a 2020 study conducted by the Partnership for the Public Good in Buffalo city court, 59% of tenants reported problems with maintenance. Yet, until last year’s passage of the Tenant Dignity and Safe Housing Act (TDSHA), tenants in most localities outside New York City lacked an easy way to sue landlords for repair problems or secure rent abatements. 

Building on TDSHA, a fully funded Statewide Right to Counsel would ensure tenants the right to counsel whether they are the plaintiff or defendant. Attorneys will have the time and training to litigate cases fully and counter-sue for dangerous conditions when tenants’ rights have been violated. The funding for attorneys and community organizers that advocates are calling for would also provide tenants critical support in tracking and documenting habitability violations.

The legislation is particularly important for New York City tenants, most of whom are already eligible for the city’s local Right to Counsel, which was established through a historic grassroots victory in 2017. NYC’s Right to Counsel has been tremendously successful at stopping evictions and keeping tenants housed, yet since pandemic-era eviction protections expired, courts have been pushing tenants’ cases forward at a rate that outpaces legal services capacity.

Courts have a moral obligation to uphold tenants’ Right to Counsel, but have so far been unresponsive to advocates’ demands to ensure due process for tenants before cases proceed. Given that the New York City Council does not have the power to regulate courts at the municipal level, the solution is clear: our state legislature must pass Statewide Right to Counsel, not only expanding Right to Counsel across the state, but mandating that courts enforce the right both locally and at the state level.

Because my family couldn’t afford a lawyer when I was a teenager, we ended up having to leave the city. While I returned after two years of high school, New York lost my parents for good. We can’t lose any more of our neighbors to a housing system that prioritizes profit over people, and a court system that’s stacked against tenants. Too many New Yorkers are threatened by dangerous living conditions and other forms of eviction for us to wait any longer. We must pass Statewide Right to Counsel this year to keep New York state tenants in their homes. 

Assemblymember Tony Simone represents parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @TonySimone.

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