By Bill Parry
When Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation last August to provide low-income New Yorkers with universal access to legal representation for wrongful evictions, the city became the first in the nation to establish this type of law.
The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition and Catholic Migration Services hosted a town hall meeting in Elmhurst last week to explain the details of the new law, such as why the Right to Counsel is so important, the eligibility requirements, how to find an attorney, which Queens zip codes will begin implementing RTC, and how to build tenant power.
After learning that 11433, 11434, and 11373 are the first Queens zip codes to have the law phased in, more than 150 tenants at the meeting in St. Bartholomew Catholic Academy in Elmhurst broke into small discussion groups to discuss the issues with attorneys and organizers.
“I’m so excited that Right to Counsel became a reality. This new right gives tenants access to free legal representation but also gives them a new tool to build power,” Catholic Migration Services Tenant Organizer Lorena Lopez said. “As tenants learn about this right and use it to defend themselves against evictions, I believe they’ll feel empowered to take more action and build stronger tenant associations. These communities will stand up, protect each other and when that happens, tenants win.”
Prior to Right to Counsel, nearly no tenants had legal representation in Housing Court — estimated as just 1 percent in 2013 by state court officials — which resulted in high incidences of evictions and unchecked tenant harassment. To help close the gap, the de Blasio administration dramatically increased the availability of city-funded legal services for low-income tenants, increasing funding for legal assistance for tenants facing eviction or harassment from $6 million in 2013 to $62 million in 2016, a tenfold increase.
The program successfully increased tenant representation in Housing Court from 1 percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2016. At the same time, residential evictions by marshals declined by 24 percent, allowing 40,000 people to remain in their homes during 2016 and 2017, according to City Hall.
“It’s been five years since the on-and-off fight to keep my home started,” Elmhurst resident Martin Hernandez said. “Getting the help of Catholic Migration Services and its attorneys has been instrumental in being able to stay in our homes and defend ourselves. That’s why I’m thankful not only for the help I have been able to get, but now with the Right to Counsel, all low-income families in New York will be able to access the legal assistance we have always needed. The Right to Counsel will empower us to continue with our struggle to have decent housing and equal rights.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr