BY JOSEPH STRASBURG
Guaranteeing free legal counsel in housing court, at first blush, appears to benefit poor tenants and affordable housing. But right to counsel for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction is more about quick-fix politics than sound long-term policy.
The politicians pulling the strings on these gimmicks couldn’t be more disingenuous. They boast about the tenfold increase over the past three years in the amount of resources the city allocates towards anti-eviction legal services. They gush about the city administration’s “historic” $155 million commitment to the program.
But they neglect to mention a significant and alarming fact: 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 (23,445 children among them) in the city’s shelter system.
How, then, can members of the City Council and other elected officials say that the right-to-counsel initiative is the cure for homelessness? In fact, the argument can be made that it’s having the opposite effect.
No one is saying that guaranteed free legal service doesn’t provide some assistance to poor tenants, but here’s the stark reality: Nonpayment of rent comprises approximately 90 percent of housing-court cases. And nonpayment cases boil down to this—does the tenant have the funds, either on his own or from governmental rental assistance programs, to pay the rent?
The answer is a resounding “no”—not because the rent is too high, but rather tenant income is too low. This is an income issue and not an affordability issue.
Local elected officials who support right-to-counsel inexplicably—or, perhaps, conveniently—fail to acknowledge that the number of evictions in recent years has actually declined by 24 percent. That figure is real news, straight from a city report, “Turning the Tide on Homelessness.”
Evictions in New York City are on the decline not because of the proliferation 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-plus 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 raises the question: If the city’s elected officials really want to protect tenants most in need of a rent subsidy lifeline, why aren’t they supporting the Hevesi-Klein “Home Stability Support” initiative in Albany proposed by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi and State Sen. 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.
Until the city’s elected officials realize that throwing good money after bad to fund politically expedient, minimal- impact programs—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 one million rent-stabilized apartments in the five boroughs.