Fixing New York City's Broken Housing Courts

This Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011 photo shows an eviction notice sign posted at the Occupy LA encampment on the grounds of Los Ang
This Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011 photo shows an eviction notice sign posted at the Occupy LA encampment on the grounds of Los Angeles City Hall. The mayor and police chief have given protesters a deadline of 12:01 a.m. Monday, Nov. 28 to vacate. (AP Photo/Andrew Dalton)

Tenants face a confusing and impersonal system when threatened with eviction in New York City Housing Court. Having a lawyer makes a huge difference in these cases, but so far it has proven difficult to provide legal representation for the approximately 250,000 people who pass through Housing Court each year. Ninety percent of tenants have to navigate the litigation process without the benefit of a lawyer, making it more likely that they will end up deeply in debt or being evicted from their homes. Fixing this problem is critical to any attempt to resolve New York City's housing crisis. The experiences of young, idealistic lawyers participating in Poverty Justice Solutions, a new fellowship program run by the Center for Court Innovation, speak to both the challenges and the necessity of expanding the legal resources available to tenants in Housing Court.

Evictions have become a major problem in New York City. In 2014, there were 28,820 families and individuals evicted from their homes, and while eviction numbers were relatively static between 1998 and 2005, in the 10 years since they have swelled by a quarter. Being evicted is a traumatic experience which can lead to more problems: It increases the likelihood children will fail in school, contributes to elevated levels of anxiety and depression, and traps families in a long-term cycle of poverty. And evictions contribute to homelessness,a pressing problem now when there are almost 60,000 people living in the New York City shelter system.

Inspired by the vision of New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Poverty Justice Solutions is a collaboration among several non-profit and government agencies that aims to expand the pool of housing attorneys. This year, 20 Poverty Justice Solutions fellows have been placed with civil legal service providers throughout New York City. Together, they will form the basis of a new corps of lawyers working to protect and empower tenants, and will be able to represent as many as 3000 families and individuals threatened with eviction. Though they cannot fix the system by themselves, their work will have a direct impact New York City's housing crisis.

Fresh from law school, the first class of Poverty Justice Solutions fellows quickly realized that the realities of Housing Court differed drastically from the ideas of jurisprudence and due process taught in law school. Devi Patel, a fellow representing victims of human trafficking and domestic violence in housing matters at Sanctuary for Families, was shocked by the "sheer chaos" of Housing Court, where there are "people screaming outside the courtroom, people breaking down."

This frantic environment makes housing court that much more difficult for tenants, who often have to negotiate directly with their landlord's attorney in those same crowded and noisy halls. Tenants, who as Ms. Patel put it "are almost always overworked and underserved," often agree to payment plans they cannot sustain, fearing that they will be evicted within days if they do not come to an agreement with their landlord.

"We're supposed to have justice for all -- but that's not true. It depends on who has access to resources," Ms. Patel told me.

Access to legal resources can help achieve justice for all. For example, tenants given advice through a non-lawyer Court Navigator program run by the New York State Unified Court System paid out an average of $175 less than unrepresented tenants and asserted three times as many of the stock defenses listed by the court as reasons for a dismissal.The benefits of full legal representation are even greater. A 2012 study of a Boston right-to-counsel pilot program showed that tenants with lawyers were able to keep their homes in twice as many cases as those without, and that represented tenants received around a fivefold financial benefit. In short, legal representation empowers tenants to assert their rights as renters and find stability in New York's volatile housing market.

Poverty Justice Solutions fellows have also leapt at the opportunity to expand the role of housing attorneys beyond emergency eviction prevention. Many forms of housing relief only become available when a tenant's eviction is imminent, which, as Catherine Barreda, a fellow and staff attorney at Queens Legal Services, put it is like "we're putting Band-aids on gun-wounds." Many of her clients, such as an elderly woman whose landlord boarded up her windows with plywood after she fell behind on rent, face challenges far beyond making the next month's rent. While Ms. Barreda prevented that client's eviction and helped her obtain assistance with rent arrears, she regretted not being able to do more. Ms. Barreda emphasized her belief in the importance of taking affirmative steps to combat these issues, citing a case where she coordinated with tenant organizers and tenants to build a case against a Queens area real estate company that was harassing its tenants. Ms. Patel echoed that thought, stating that one of the most important tasks facing housing attorneys is asking: "how can I prevent this from happening in the first place?"

Of course, this is just a start to resolving New York's housing and homelessness crisis. But programs like Poverty Justice Solutions are making a dent in the problem by targeting the issues plaguing housing court. In doing so, they reinforce efforts to expand affordable housing and provide care to the homeless by making sure that once people having housing they have a chance to hold on to it. As Chief Judge Lippman wrote in an opinion piece, "Meeting our responsibilities to the most disadvantaged in society is not a luxury and it isn't a choice - it is a simple matter of justice."