By Mark Levine and Shaun Abreu
As the COVID-19 positivity rate rises and the temperature plummets, too many New Yorkers do not know if they will be able to stay in their apartments. Across our state, hundreds of thousands of eviction cases currently sit in limbo. When the eviction moratorium ends on Jan. 15, many of them will lose their homes.
New York cannot afford to stand by as a tsunami of eviction ravages our communities. No child, parent, elderly person or New Yorker in poverty deserves to face an eviction notice without essential legal resources, especially as the omicron variant rages through our city.
Faced with eviction, low-income tenants deserve to be properly represented by an attorney. The original Right to Counsel bill, which passed in 2017, guaranteed that low-income families falling below 200% of the federal line have access to free attorneys in housing court. It was an unconditional success: 84% of families facing eviction stayed in their homes in the program’s first year.
Building on this success and to meet this dire moment, we are calling upon the New York City Council to pass what we call Right to Counsel 2.0. This bill will expand the number of tenants who have access to attorneys by increasing the income eligibility from 200% to 400% of the federal poverty line. Without this law, families of two or four making more than $34,840 or $53,000, respectively, will continue to be on their own.
We know how incredibly difficult it is to navigate the bureaucracy of eviction court. It is nearly impossible to adequately defend yourself in housing court without a lawyer. The tragic result is that many tenants lose cases even when the law is on their side.
Inaction would not only be catastrophic for families, but for the fight against COVID-19 as well. For example, in its August order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, highlighted that “evictions of tenants for failure to make rent or housing payments could be detrimental to public health control measures to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2.” Many tenants will end up on the street and in congregate shelters. At this moment, congregate shelters are some of the most vulnerable places for COVID-19 in our city. Flooding them with thousands of newly evicted New Yorkers will be untenable for our shelter system and for our fight against the spread of the omicron variant.
The housing instability generated by failing to expand the right to counsel would also compound the diminished mental health of young New Yorkers and could also disrupt their education, worsening learning loss. Our children cannot afford for us to wait.
Between our experiences as a former tenant rights attorney and former chair of the City Council’s Health Committee, we know the direct benefit this will have on New Yorkers. However, every day without action is another day of uncertainty for them. Too many do not know whether they are on the verge of losing the place they call home. If we want to fight back against the spread of COVID-19 and keep families in their homes, the City Council must pass Right to Counsel 2.0 now. These tenants are counting on us.
Levine is currently the Manhattan borough president and sponsor of the original Right to Counsel legislation. Abreu, a former tenant rights attorney, represents parts of Northern Manhattan in the City Council.