With a backlog of 200,000 eviction cases pending in NYC housing courts, residents, advocates and lawmakers braved the freezing weather Monday to protest tenants’ inability to access lawyers.
On March 28, Bronx tenants, organized by New Settlement’s membership-driven tenant organizing project Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), along with other members of the Right to Counsel Coalition and elected officials, gathered in front of the Bronx Housing Court on Grand Concourse to protest tenants being denied Right to Counsel by the courts.
The rally comes after the refusal of the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) to consider the request of the Right to Counsel Coalition — to only schedule eviction cases in a volume that matches legal service providers’ capacity and adjourn cases that are eligible for representation under the Right to Counsel law.
“The courts have consistently taken the position that questions of provider caseload and capacity under the Right to Counsel law are properly resolved, as a matter of contract compliance, between the city-funded legal services providers and the Office of Civil Justice, the entity charged with implementation of the Right to Counsel law and program,” OCA said in a March 1 statement to the Right to Counsel Coalition. “…The Court will not reduce its calendars at a provider’s request. If … a provider declines to accept cases on a date when the Office of Civil Justice scheduled that provider to take cases, we will report the event to OCJ and the case will move forward without counsel for the tenant, as it would have if the tenant were found to be over income or otherwise ineligible for representation.”
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for OCA, told the Bronx Times that adjourning cases does not solve the issue, but rather slows down the court process. Chalfen said the office notified New York City’s Office of Civil Justice, who provides the funding for the Right to Counsel program, of the situation and are working with them to resolve the issue.
“The situation in Bronx Housing Court is not about the Right to Counsel Law,” Chalfen said. “It is about a legal services provider who is incapable of carrying out their contractual obligations regarding assigned counsel. They have refused every case assigned this month. Therein lies the problem.”
Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Bronx Legal Services, told the Bronx Times that landlords have filed 7,000 eviction cases a month since the eviction moratorium lapsed on Jan. 15. And with the rapid rate of filings overwhelming the courts and lawyers, Rasmussen said judges must adjourn cases until all tenants have lawyers.
“The Right to Counsel passed in 2017 and legal aid have been working with the city and courts to map out the ability to take on all of the cases,” Rasmussen said. “The problem is with the moratorium and the opening of the courts there has been a huge increase in the number of cases filed and on backlog. What we’re asking for is the courts to slow down increasing old cases and new cases and to give us time to catch up.”
Established in 2017, New York City’s Right to Counsel initiative provides free legal services — including representation — to tenants facing eviction in housing court. The data shows that the overwhelming majority of tenants who have city-funded legal representation are successful in their legal proceedings, with 84% of households represented by a Right to Counsel lawyer able to remain in their homes.
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who authored the Right to Counsel legislation — with Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson when they were members of the City Council — spoke at the rally about the need for all tenants to be legally represented.
On March 9, Levine sent a letter to the state Chief Judge Janet DiFiore pleading with her to slow down eviction cases and issue an administrative order, to ensure that only cases where tenants have secured a retainer with a legal services provider are allowed to move forward. He said not granting tenants legal representation is a violation of the law.
Levine said that for decades landlords knew that when they took tenants to court it was nearly a slam dunk that they would win the case. But with the passage of Right to Counsel, people now have a fighting chance.
However, Levine now sees this latest problem snowballing into something much worse.
“We have been warning for months about what will happen and now our nightmares are being realized,” he said.
The # of eviction cases in NYC is rising so fast that it’s overwhelming the tenant legal services system.
This is a disaster. Families will be evicted because they didn’t have an attorney.
— Mark D. Levine (@MarkLevineNYC) March 28, 2022
City Councilmember Althea Stevens, a Concourse Village Progressive, knows about housing court firsthand. She told the attendees how she had to appear in housing court once with her daughter and feared that they would end up homeless.
There was already a housing crisis before COVID-19, and having tenants appear in court without a lawyer is only going to make things worse, she said. “Everybody who walks into this courthouse should have an attorney because every landlord who walks into this courthouse has an attorney,” Stevens said.
Tenant Leader Paula James, of the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, came to the rally in the Bronx to express her frustrations with the court system. James was confused about why the courts are scheduling cases without any lawyers available for tenants.
“I am a senior in this freezing cold because of my tenants,” James said. “The Office of Court Administration, who ignored the law, and decided that … evictions are more important than human rights. If you don’t uphold the law, you will create the worst homeless crisis NYC has ever seen.”
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes