Panel Discusses Right to Counsel for Eviction Cases in NYC Housing Court

Image Credit: NYLS

On November 2, 2017, the Impact Center for Public Interest Law and the Center for New York City Law hosted a discussion on the newly enacted local law which will insure that all low income persons facing eviction will have counsel in Housing Court. Professor Andrew Scherer, Policy Director of the Impact Center, moderated the panel featuring: Marika Dias, Director of Tenant Rights Campaign at Legal Services NYC (LSNYC); Carmen Vega-Rivera, Tenant Leader of Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA); Jordan Dressler, NYC Civil Justice Coordinator; and the Honorable Jean Schneider, Citywide Supervising Judge at the NYC Housing Court.

Professor Scherer reviewed the law and noted that New York City is the first city in the country to provide such representation.

Jordan Dressler, the City’s Civil Justice Coordinator, outlined the range of services provided by the Coordinator’s office under the new Right to Counsel Law. The law provides full legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction. It also provides legal consultations to advise tenants of their rights regardless of income level or case type and requires reporting on the success of these services and an annual public hearing to obtain stakeholder feedback.

Dressler spoke of the law’s rollout— funding for the Civil Justice Coordinator will be increased from $6 million to $62 million a year, and the program will be phased in by zip code. Dressler also noted that the law makes the program a permanent City program. The Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator was created by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016 and is housed in the Human Resources Administration.

Judge Schneider noted that because of these scarce resources, many tenants have walked away from limited representation. Carmen Vega-Rivera of CASA emphasized the need for high-quality representation, stating, “This is not about winning or losing a case. This is about a roof over someone’s head.” Vega-Rivera added that “Housing is a human right and this is a strong step towards that protection.”

Marika Dias of LSNYC agreed, stating, “The one thing we will not sacrifice on is the quality of the representation.” Dias also noted that “this is about people’s homes” which affects their family and ability to be educated and earn a living. Dias urged that in implementing the Right to Counsel law the City should focus on legal representation as a human right, and that tenant empowerment is the way to do this.

Carmen Vega-Rivera, who has represented herself pro se in Housing Court, calls herself a “warrior” and not a “victim” of Housing Court. She described the experience of appearing in Court without representation—tenants are discouraged and feel powerless because the law favors landlords. She said that in the past tenants have not organized out of fear of being displaced. Now that tenants have obtained a right to counsel tenants have collective power to level the playing field. Vega-Rivera said that the Right to Counsel law is a signal to both tenants and landlords. For tenants, it is an example of the power of organizing to enact policy. For landlords, it is a message that tenants have power.

Judge Schneider noted the dramatic increase in the number of tenants coming into Housing Court due to having representation, and also noted a significant shift in the culture of Housing Court. Judge Schneider does not think that landlords will bring fewer cases, but that the way cases will be brought will change now that there will be lawyers on the other side. Jordan Dressler cited a 24 percent percent decline in evictions since 2013, the same time period when legal services were being ramped up. Dressler said this shows that legal representation for low-income tenants is not only effective, but also the right thing to do. Dressler said that the need for tenant representation is obvious when landlords always have representation.

Marika Dias said housing law is “an amazing form of practice” to develop litigation skills and help others. On getting involved in Housing Court, Jordan Dressler says this is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to shape the future of housing law. Judge Schneider expressed excitement at the prospect of lawyers coming into Housing Court and making new, creative arguments. All speakers on the panel expressed a general sentiment of excitement around the implementation of the Right to Counsel law.

Professor Scherer ended the discussion by celebrating New York City’s unique status as the first city in the country to ensure that low-income tenants facing eviction have a right to representation. He noted the City’s progressivism as a leader in promoting fundamental rights.

By: Shelby Hoffman (Shelby is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2017.)

One thought on “Panel Discusses Right to Counsel for Eviction Cases in NYC Housing Court

  1. It seems odd that there is no mention of either fact that Judge Schneider is spouse of HRA Commissioner, or that eviction counts actually went UP in 2016.

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