Westchester Legislators Pass Landmark Access to Counsel Bill
Assignment of free attorneys for eligible tenants facing eviction from their homes has been a goal—a dream really—of BOL Majority Leader Chris Johnson and mine since we were first-year County Legislators in 2018 when we fought hard for inclusion of a “Right to Counsel” pilot program in Yonkers City Court. The two of us made it known that we would vote “No” on the entire budget if a line item for this was not in the final approved budget for the next year. I remember that Legislator Johnson and I exchanged texts into the wee hours as we pored over line items to find savings in other departments that could be applied to the pilot. (Meanwhile, Legislator Johnson was backing me up on the ultimately successful plan to keep a branch of the Westchester Family Court in New Rochelle to replace the dilapidated building then in use.) Pretty bold, or naive, move by a couple of “frosh” lawmakers! But, we collaborated with other colleagues over time to constantly move the issue a little further down the road every year until…
On this past Monday night, the BOL unanimously passed a landmark Access to Counsel bill, mandating full legal representation to households facing eviction and other housing-related proceedings if their annual income is at or below 300% of the federal poverty-line or 60% of the county’s Area Median Income (AMI), whichever is higher, which would currently mean coverage for a family of four with total household income of about $82,000. Across the United States only three states and 15 large cities, including NYC but not NYS, have enacted Access to Counsel laws, ensuring that tenants facing eviction proceedings are provided with an attorney. We believe we are the first county to do this, which makes sense in view of the regional nature of our housing crisis and the way we provide the related social services in this state via county government. In fact, the Office of Housing Counsel will work directly with the County Department of Social Services. Once hired, a director of the OHC will have six months to establish a plan to provide eligible tenants with legal assistance at no cost.
This law provides for access to legal representation for income-eligible tenants facing eviction and/or specified covered proceedings, including challenges to an unlawful rent increase, instances where a tenant has been illegally locked out by their landlord, and tenants seeking the restoration of essential services. It applies to court actions and administrative proceedings (such as before housing authority boards). The law is a critical step towards creating a more just and equitable society, particularly for those who have historically been forced to navigate the complexities of housing court without legal representation, where historically over 90% of landlords have had lawyers and less than 10% of tenants have. With the end of the eviction moratorium in early 2022, eviction filings in New York State have climbed sharply, leaving tens of thousands of tenants without legal representation. Despite warnings from housing advocates and legal professionals, the state has yet to adopt a statewide Right to Counsel law. By the way, even those not eligible for full representation are entitled to one brief consultation with an attorney assigned by the OHC or one of its qualified contractors.
So, not only is this law the “right” thing to do, it will soon render savings to the County in reducing evictions that result in the high costs of putting up unhoused families and individuals in motels and other shelters, including the substantial costs of busing children back to their home Districts every school day. The long-term emotional and social costs for children leading the nomadic existence of the homeless are dire, to say the least.