NYC Mayor Adams urged to boost funding for struggling Right to Counsel program for tenants facing eviction
The city should boost funding for a beleaguered initiative to give free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction, say four borough presidents.
It’s the latest call to increase support for the overburdened program, known as Right to Counsel (RTC).
BPs Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, Antonio Reynoso of Brooklyn, Mark Levine of Manhattan and Donovan Richards of Queens, all Democrats, expressed their concerns to Department of Social Services Commissioner (DSS) Molly Parks in a Monday letter obtained by the Daily News.
In it, they say the program has reached a “breaking point” and “will become a national embarrassment as more and more New Yorkers are denied access to critical legal defense because providers are dramatically underfunded.”
The pols called for the city to allocate a total of $461 million in the budget for the next fiscal year — hundreds of millions dollars more than Mayor Adams included in the executive budget he announced last week.
The program currently has $110 million in contracts, with Adams, a Democrat, earmarking $166 million for RTC for next fiscal year.
RTC, which is overseen by DSS, is intended to provide “universal access” to legal assistance for defendants in housing court. But thousands have gone without help amid a public defender staffing shortage coupled with skyrocketing eviction rates since pandemic-era moratoriums ended. RTC providers have had to turn away over 10,000 eviction cases since March 2022, City Limits reported in January.
“There is just no getting around the fact that we need to hire more lawyers and we need to pay them better and we need to reduce their caseloads,” Levine told the Daily News. “And all of those things require [an increase in the] budget.”
A DSS spokesperson said the agency is supportive of “any efforts which would help slow down the calendaring of cases by the courts.“
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“We continue to strengthen tenant protections and invest in our first-in-the-nation Right to Counsel initiative that was implemented citywide last year and are working to increase legal services providers and launching a pilot at Brooklyn Housing Court to connect at-risk tenants to emergency rental assistance,” the spokesperson, Neha Sharma, said in a statement.
Eviction filings have increased “significantly” in every borough since 2021, according to legal providers, who say that even fully staffed, they would only be able to represent a third of the 120,000 eviction cases they expect this year.
“Our clients already face an uphill battle in housing court, and denying them their right to legal representation makes it all the more likely that they will end up unjustly displaced from their homes and communities,” said Adriene Holder, chief attorney of the Civil Practice at the Legal Aid Society.
“During a time of rising rents and unprecedented inflation, the City must invest in its most vulnerable citizens and fund programs like Right to Counsel,” she added.
Monday’s letter was not the first time the BPs rallied around RTC. Gibson and Levine previously pushed for safeguards to the program last year, and the pair also spearheaded the original bill in 2017 when they served on the City Council.
The city budget has yet to be finalized, and Levine said it was unclear whether the funding asks for RTC would be met.
“But the case is compelling, the need is huge,” he said. “The time is now to solve this.”