Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Human Rights Win for Tenants in New York City

Risa Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute

Hungry for good news? New York City is poised to become the first U.S. city to provide universal access to counsel in housing court.

In a public statement last weekend, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced their support for legislation providing legal counsel for all low-income tenants facing eviction. The announcement all but ensures that some version of the pending right to counsel bill, Intro 214-a, will become law and that New York City will become the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to provide legal counsel for tenants facing eviction.  

This important victory is the result of remarkable and sustained efforts by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, progressive politicians, the organized bar, and the judiciary.

The initiative would expand New York City’s provision of free legal aid for tenants in housing court with household incomes at 200% or below the federal poverty level and make legal counseling available to those who earn more. The Mayor’s new commitment would add funding to the City’s recent expansion of legal aid for low-income tenants, which has raised tenant representation rates from 1% to 27% and reduced evictions by 24%. The new increase would be phased in over five years, with an estimated 400,000 people served by the program when it is fully implemented.

Human rights have been front and center in advocacy for the New York City right to counsel effort. As has been noted in previous posts and in other scholarship, guaranteed access to legal counsel for people threatened with the loss of housing safeguards basic human rights. Two of the core human rights treaties ratified by the United States (the ICCPR and the CERD) underscore the importance of legal representation as a component of the right to equal and meaningful access to justice and due process of law. UN human rights experts have specifically recommended that the U.S. do more to ensure access to legal representation in cases where basic human needs -- including housing -- are stake.

While there remain significant unmet legal needs, New York City has taken major steps in recent years to expand access to justice, including through its funding of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, a public defender program for immigrants facing deportation, and its creation of the Office for Civil Justice, which works to increase the availability of free and low-cost legal services throughout the city.

In leading the United States on providing access to counsel in housing court, New York City joins jurisdictions around the world in ensuring legal counsel in basic needs cases. And it helps to implement Goal 16 of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which calls on each country, including the United States, to ensure access to justice for all.

While New York City is the first U.S. jurisdiction to provide counsel in housing court, other state and local jurisdictions are in the pipeline. A right to counsel bill is pending in Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia is considering a housing representation expansion bill.

In addition to promoting and protecting equal and meaningful access to justice, these measures exemplify the role that states and localities play in ensuring rights protections more generally in the new political climate. With core safety net protections and other human rights under threat by the new Administration, states and localities offer a critical line of defense, and a potential source of more good news.

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