On a Saturday evening in mid-February, NYLAG and other legal services organizations were invited to dial into a conference call with New York City housing officials. At a time when advocates were beginning to absorb media reports about potential cuts to federal funding for the low-income New Yorkers they serve, they were about to get some good news: The next day, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito would announce universal access to legal services for tenants facing eviction in New York City Housing Court.

The announcement was the culmination of years of support for a right to counsel in Housing Court on the part of housing advocates and a broad coalition including every Member of the City Council, labor unions, the New York City Bar Association, and all Community Boards throughout New York.

“Given the uncertainty of federal funding, it is more important than ever for New York City to strengthen its social safety net.  The City Council and the Mayor took a tremendous step forward in announcing the phase-in of universal access to counsel in Housing Court,” said Jonathan Fox, Interim Director of the Tenants’ Rights Unit. “This historic move will close the justice gap in Housing Court where landlords almost always are represented by counsel and shows that the City understands the importance of providing lawyers to low-income tenants facing eviction and homelessness who would otherwise be unable to afford legal representation.”

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Low-income New Yorkers at risk of eviction and foreclosure face an enormous justice gap. There is a severe imbalance in the level of legal representation between landlords and tenants in eviction proceedings. These challenges are compounded for elderly, disabled and non-English speaking people.

“This is a critically important development in the effort to level the playing field in Housing Court in New York City,” said Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. “It was not long ago that barely one percent of tenants facing eviction in the City were represented by counsel. Building on funding that the State court system has provided for civil legal services, this landmark agreement will ensure that tenants at risk of losing the roof over their heads receive invaluable legal assistance when they appear in court.”

The new access to counsel program builds on tenant-protection initiatives that began in 2014 when the City launched a $62 million-a-year budget to expand legal services for tenants. According to the New York City Office of Civil Justice this investment has already increased the number of tenants represented by a lawyer in Housing Court from one percent to 27 percent, and helped reduce evictions by 24%.

The new plan calls for a total of $93 million to be phased in by zip code over the next five fiscal years, starting with $15 million in fiscal year 2018 and reaching $93 million in 2022. Through universal access the City will provide free legal representation in court to New Yorkers with household incomes below roughly $50,000 (200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four), and legal counseling to those earning more. The City estimates 400,000 New Yorkers will be served under the program every year at full implementation.