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In New York, Free Legal Help Arrives For Low-Income Tenants In Housing Court


Hundreds of thousands of low-income tenants are evicted each year from their homes across the U.S., many without the help of an attorney in court. Some cities and states are hoping to change this and are looking at a new program in New York City as a model.

Jenifer McKim from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting prepared this story.


COLEMAN: This 10-story courthouse in the South Bronx is the busiest housing court in New York City, with more than 80,000 eviction proceedings filed last fiscal year. Legal aid attorneys arrive early to call out names of tenants facing eviction on this chilly February day. This is not a happy place. Women with children, families and seniors, mostly people of color, are facing the possibility of losing their homes.

But there is some good news in this busy building bustling with anxiety. A growing number of low-income tenants are learning that they are eligible for free legal help.

JACQUELINE DAVIS: I'm a senior citizen. I hope they don't evict me.

COLEMAN: Jacqueline Davis (ph) is a 74-year-old retiree fighting an eviction from her home of nearly 30 years for not paying rent. She recently withheld part of her payment because of a broken pipe that damaged her kitchen. Today she finds out she's qualified for legal help through a first in the nation program providing eligible low-income tenants an attorney, similar to public defenders in criminal court.

DAVIS: We had no legal representation before. Now you have somebody to speak for you.

JENIFER MCKIM, BYLINE: New York law professor Andrew Scherer says he's been fielding calls from interested policymakers across the U.S.

ANDREW SCHERER: It's one of the most significant steps forward in access to justice in a generation.

MCKIM: Already, San Francisco and Newark, N.J., have passed similar legislation. The interest comes amidst what some call an eviction epidemic. Nearly 900,000 households were evicted in 2016 according to a report by Princeton University. Scherer's been fighting for lawyers for low-income tenants for decades, a legal right given to low-income defendants in U.S. criminal courts more than 50 years ago.

SCHERER: One's home is the other basic area of life that needs protection. It's really the next frontier.

MCKIM: New York City is one of the costliest places to live in the country, where salaries have not kept up with soaring rents. Historically, only 1-in-10 tenants has been represented by an attorney, while most landlords have lawyers. The new Right to Counsel program, launched in 2017, is being phased in by zip code. City officials say 30 percent of tenants facing eviction now have lawyers. And all eligible renters should be receiving help by 2022.

STEVEN BANKS: The provision of counsel helps tenants get the repairs that they need, helps make sure that the rent that's being charged is a lawful rent and make sure the tenants are not being displaced from their apartments as a result of harassment.

MCKIM: That's Steven Banks, head of the New York City Department of Social Services. The city will be paying $155 million a year to fund the program at its buildout, a cost he says is well worth the price to reduce homelessness. Already, Bank says the city has seen a dramatic drop in evictions, with 84 percent of households represented by lawyers last fiscal year able to stay at home. But not everybody's convinced. Mitch Posilkin, counsel for an association of New York City landlords, says benefits are overblown.

MITCH POSILKIN: You cannot look at the right to counsel law in a vacuum.

MCKIM: Posilkin concedes some tenants may avoid eviction with the help of lawyers. But he attributes much of a drop in evictions to an influx of New York City funding to struggling tenants to cover housing arrears.

POSILKIN: Even with the best attorney, the housing court is going to be faced with the ultimate question of does the tenant have the money to pay the rent or not?

MCKIM: Not all tenant disputes, however, are about money. Consider the case of Nadia Matear (ph). She lives in a dilapidated apartment building in the Bronx that has been plagued with leaks, rats and roaches. Matear says she hasn't had gas since September and has had to cook on a hot plate. Heat comes on sporadically. Tenants in her building are organizing. Matear says the new legal help bolsters her confidence to fight for her rights. If the landlord retaliates, she would have legal help.

NADIA MATEAR: With my mindset, knowing that we have legal representation, I'm like let's go. Bring it on. I'm ready for you guys. I'm tired. Like, come on.

MCKIM: New Yorkers have three more years before all low-income tenants have legal representation. It's likely by then, more tenants across the U.S. will have similar legal support. For NPR News, I'm Jenifer McKim in New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenifer McKim