By Bill Parry
The de Blasio administration has provided free housing legal services to nearly a quarter of a million New Yorkers in the past year, and now the city is launching its second phase of the “Universal Access” initiative and expanding the program to Jamaica, Elmhurst, Ridgewood and Glendale.
The first phase provided access to free legal representation in Housing Court to low-income New Yorkers in 15 ZIP codes across the city that were identified as experiencing high risks for eviction and loss of affordable housing.
“New Yorkers shouldn’t have to choose between paying for a lawyer to fight to keep their home and putting food on the table,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “Our unprecedented commitment to ensuring low-income New Yorkers facing eviction in Housing Court have access to legal assistance has already served more than 250,000 New Yorkers and this new expansion to five more zip codes will allow us to reach even more people in need.”
The initiative, which is overseen by the Office of Civil Justice at the Human Resources Administration, is expected to provide legal services to 400,000 residents facing eviction and displacement when fully implemented in 2022.
“With the launch of Universal Access to Legal Services last year, New York City became the first jurisdiction in the nation to guarantee legal assistance to all low-income people facing eviction,” Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks said. “Now, one year late, this initiative has provided thousands of New Yorkers the fighting chance they deserve to avoid eviction and harassment, having a positive impact not only for those who are able to remain in their homes but for the city overall.”
In 2013, only one percent of tenants facing eviction in Housing Court had legal representation.
The Universal Access to Legal Services Implementation Report, released last week, revealed that by the end of Fiscal Year 2018, in the fifteen zip codes targeted for legal services in the first phase of the initiative, 56 percent of the tenants who appeared in Housing Court to face eviction proceedings were represented by an attorney.
Citywide, 30 percent of tenants who appeared in eviction cases in Housing Court were represented by counsel.
“Low income New Yorkers facing eviction should not lose their housing simply because they cannot afford the steep legal fees to defend themselves,” state Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi said. “By increasing access to free legal services, the city has helped thousands of people remain in their homes.”
The report further details that city-funded lawyers represented tenants in more than 9,000 eviction cases that concluded in Fiscal Year 2018, and in those cases the tenants were able to remain in their homes 84 percent of the time, meaning nearly 22,000 New Yorkers whose tenancies were threatened by evictions were able to stay in their homes.
“Access to Counsel is making New York City a fairer place, and giving tenants a chance to fight eviction and harassment from landlords,” City Councilman Rory Lancman, the chairman of the council’s Committee on the Justice System, said. “I am pleased to see this landmark program expand into Ridgewood and Glendale so more Queens residents can receive free legal representation in Housing Court.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr