Opinion

Memo to New York City Council: Right to Counsel Act won't curb homelessness

By Joseph Strasburg |  

August 2, 2017 |  

New York City Councilman Mark Levine. (William Alatriste/New York City Council)

On the surface, guaranteeing the right to counsel in housing court appears to benefit tenants and affordable housing. But free legal representation for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction is more quick-fix-politics than sound long-term policy – and the politicians pushing these gimmicks, like New York City Councilman Mark Levine, couldn’t be more disingenuous.

Levine crows about a tenfold increase over the past three years under the de Blasio Administration in the amount of resources the city allocates towards anti-eviction legal services. He gushes about the mayor’s “historic” $155 million commitment to the program.

But Levine neglects to mention that during this same three-year period of historic right to counsel funding, New York City’s homeless population has reached historic levels – the highest since the Great Depression – with 61,935 New Yorkers (including 23,445 children) in the city’s shelter system.

How, then, can Levine say with a straight face that the right to counsel initiative is the cure for homelessness? The argument can be made that it's having the opposite effect.

RELATED: Levine: Right to Counsel a victory for New York City tenants

No one is saying that guaranteed free legal service isn’t a benefit to poor tenants, but here’s the reality: non-payment of rent comprises approximately 90 percent of housing court cases. Non-payment cases boil down to one factor – does the tenant have the funds, either on their own or from governmental rental assistance programs, to pay the rent? The answer is no – not because the rent is too damn high, but rather tenant income is too damn low.

Levine also conveniently fails to acknowledge that the number of evictions in recent years have actually declined by 24 percent, according to the city's recent "Turning the Tide on Homelessness" report – not because of the increase in the number of tenant attorneys in housing court or the increase in right to counsel funding, but because rental assistance has never been higher for tenants who face eviction due to non-payment of rent. The city has increased rental assistance by 200 percent from 2011 through 2016. 

With annual expenditures of more than $100 million on lawyers, $200+ million on one-shots, and millions in funding for the Family Eviction Prevention Program – coupled with the decline in evictions – why then are homeless numbers surging? The answer: Perhaps because homelessness has nothing to do with housing court.

The fact is, even with all of the free legal representation available, it’s not keeping low-income tenants in their homes – because no matter how low the rent is, these tenants still need even more government subsidy.

This begs the question: Why isn’t Levine, Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council and Democrats in the state Assembly supporting the Hevesi-Klein “Home Stability Support” initiative proposed by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi and State Senator Jeffrey Klein?

This proposal would directly address the city’s record homelessness by providing a federal and state-funded rent subsidy for tenants who are facing homelessness or eviction. It’s a solid rent relief program – and a real cure for homelessness – that would keep the poorest and income-challenged families in their homes.

RELATED: Why de Blasio's response to homelessness might 'turn the tide'

The Right to Counsel bill will also require a huge increase the number of judges, law secretaries, clerks and other staff to avoid the administrative quagmire that has already begun to strangle housing court. Housing court gridlock does nothing for tenants, who lose days of wages from missed work, or small owners, who are denied the rental income they need to repair, improve and maintain their buildings and pay property taxes and water rates that de Blasio has raised 17 percent and 12 percent, respectively, since taking office.

Isn't it time that the mayor and City Council realize that working with the 25,000 owners of 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in the five boroughs – the largest providers of quality, affordable housing and one of the city's major economic engines in good times and bad – are part of the solution, and not the problem to homelessness and other housing issues?

Until Levine and other politicians realize that throwing good money after bad to fund politically expedient, minimal impact programs like the Right to Counsel – rather than support sound initiatives like Hevesi-Klein Home Stability Support – tenants and owners can just expect more politics over policy when it comes to affordable housing.

Joseph Strasburg is president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 owners of 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in the five boroughs.

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