Protecting Tenants in Eviction Proceedings
By Janet Bear
Three Mamaroneck High School Students from the OCRA program (Original Civic Research in Action) along with their teacher Joe Liberti, addressed the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit webinar, co-hosted by LMC Media on Tuesday, June 13th, explaining the importance of the Right to Counsel in eviction proceedings.
Four years ago, Village of Mamaroneck Judge Daniel Gallagher spoke to the OCRA students about what he sees in his courtroom during eviction proceedings, “Landlords bring lawyers and tenants bring babies in strollers.” This large power imbalance (90% of landlords have legal representation but only 10% of tenants) results in most tenants quickly losing their cases, many in under 4 minutes. Once a tenant is evicted, his/her future ability to rent is severely impacted (most landlords immediately reject an individual with an eviction record), they are more likely to encounter long-term poverty and suffer psychological and generational trauma. Caitlyn Carpenter, Allison Hecht and Anna McDonald, three of the OCRA students who heard Judge Gallagher speak, decided that the “Right to Counsel in Westchester County” would be their OCRA project. Two other students, Todd Freifeld and Frances McDowell, were also part of the OCRA group who spent four years working on this issue but were unable to attend the Summit’s presentation.
After Anna presented the overview, Allison explained that the Right to Counsel (R2C – the guarantee of legal representation in eviction proceedings) currently exists in three states (Washington, Connecticut and Maryland) along with a number of major US cities including New York City but does not exist elsewhere in New York State. Allison stated that tenants are twice as likely to remain in their homes if they have legal representation at eviction proceedings. As reported in the Stout Feasibility Study (released March 2022) 42% of NY tenants (outside NYC) don’t even appear in court because they don’t understand their rights, and they immediately lose their case. It’s estimated that nearly one-third of those tenants wouldn’t be evicted if they had been represented by legal counsel.
Eviction is the leading cause of homelessness. Students are 3 times more likely to repeat a grade if they experience housing instability. 1-2% of suicides are eviction related. Workers who experience an eviction are 11 to 22% more likely to be laid off.
Beyond the devasting impact evictions can have on tenants, evictions also can result in sizeable financial costs to municipalities. Allison provided figures on the costs in NYC of homelessness (emergency shelter for a family tops $81,000/year) and stated that since R2C was enacted in NYC, 84% of tenants have been able to remain in their home. It’s estimated that R2C saved NYC $320 million/year.
In Westchester County there are two sources for free legal representation. Legal Services of Hudson Valley serviced over 5000 clients in 2021, but demand was 2 to 3 times higher, and they don’t serve undocumented individuals. Hudson Valley Justice Center does serve the undocumented, but their capacity is very limited.
Caitlyn spoke about what is happening in Westchester County. In 2020, the Westchester Right to Council Coalition was formed, made up of legal providers, community organizers and faith leaders. County Executive George Latimer introduced legislation in May 2022 to create the Office of Housing Counsel (within the Department of Social Services) which will be responsible for organizing a program to provide legal services through designated organizations or qualified professionals to tenants up to certain income levels. The legislation is currently in committee, addressing five concerns that the coalition has raised. It is hoped that the legislators can vote on this legislation this summer. During the Q&A session, George Latimer mentioned that money has been budgeted for increased funding for legal services. If Westchester County joins NYC to enact Right to Council legislation, that will help state legislators pursue action at the state level.
How can you help? Anna indicated that individuals should call, email or write a letter to their local legislator urging them to pass this legislation. In addition, faith-based communities are also urged to support this legislation. Further information and sample communications can be found at https://bit.ly/WestchesterRight2Counsel
The Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit is an informal community council that seeks to make a better life for the community by keeping it informed of major issues of concern. The next Zoom program, co-hosted by LMC Media, will be Tuesday, September 13th at 8:00 am. Visit the Local Summit online: https://www.localsummit-lm.org/ LMC Media: https://lmcmedia.org/.