New York City establishes tenants' right to lawyer in eviction cases

The New York City Council passed legislation Thursday that will guarantee free legal representation to all low-income tenants facing eviction, the first measure in the nation to establish a civil right to counsel in housing court.

Advocates for tenants in Maryland and across the nation hailed the legislation, which New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign. New York City has already expanded funding for attorneys from nearly $17 million in fiscal year 2015 to $71 million in fiscal year 2017.

The proportion of tenants in New York’s housing court with legal representation grew from 1 percent in 2014 to 27 percent last year. Evictions in the city fell by nearly 25 percent to 22,000.

The legislation would phase in representation over five years but could begin to provide it to public housing residents this fall.

“It’s impossible to overstate the significance,” said John Pollock, coordinator of the Baltimore-based National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. “We’ve been hearing from jurisdictions across the country that want to be next.

“This is the first step in what looks like a major tide of cities looking to follow New York.”

While Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Philadelphia have been exploring the idea, Baltimore has largely ignored it.

Baltimore spends twice as much to carry out evictions ($2.7 million) as it does to prevent them ($1.3 million). The 70,000 eviction orders each year, which result in about 7,000 evictions, are among the highest rates in the nation.

The Baltimore Sun’s “Dismissed” series has shown that landlords enjoy significant advantages over tenants in rent court. A Sun analysis of more than 5,500 tenant complaints of substandard housing between 2010 and last year showed that District Court judges routinely ruled in favor of landlords, even when city inspectors confirmed threats to health, safety and well-being. Landlords are almost always represented while tenants often appear alone at hearings.

Baltimore City Councilman Robert Stokes introduced legislation Monday to establish a fund that would help low-income tenants facing eviction hire legal representation.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, has asked Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services to research how other cities and states featured in The Sun series are funding, or proposing to pay for, more lawyers for tenants.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and several council members have expressed support for the concept.“Now the conversation is happening” in Baltimore and Maryland, Pollock said. His group has been pushing for such measures since 2003.

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