NYS Tenants And Legal Workers Rally At Capitol For Right To Counsel, Seeking $260M In Budget

March 16, 2024

Yesterday, members of the Right to Counsel Coalition, advocates, and supporters held a press conference and rally to announce support for Statewide Right to Counsel.

Over 176,000 New Yorkers are facing eviction statewide, and in NYC, for over a year, tens of thousands of tenants facing eviction have been denied access to their right to an attorney in housing court. Tenants and legal services workers in the Right to Counsel coalition gathered on the Million Dollar Staircase in the State Capitol to call on elected leadership to address these crises by passing and funding Statewide Right to Counsel legislation (S2721 May) with $260 million in the fiscal year 2025 budget. During the rally, tenant groups, representing thousands of tenants throughout the state, expressed the urgent need to pass and fully fund Right to Counsel and tenants made their voices heard in the halls, chanting “Evictions are violent, we will not be silent!” and “Fight! Fight! Fight! Housing is a human right!”.

Statewide Right to Counsel guarantees all tenants across New York State the right to a lawyer when facing an eviction – a crucial right that New Yorkers need now more than ever. Without Right to Counsel attorneys, it is near impossible for tenants facing eviction to navigate complicated court processes and the complexities of housing law. In an environment where most landlords have attorneys and the vast majority of tenants do not, Right to Counsel helps shift the power imbalance that exists between landlords and tenants in housing court. It also enforces and upholds tenants rights, giving tenants the power to organize and fight back, and making it harder for landlords to skirt tenant protections. As the campaign for Right to Counsel builds support throughout the state, tenants have made one thing clear – they refuse to be ignored and are resolved to pushing Right to Counsel past the finish line.

In recognition of how urgent and essential Right to Counsel is to stopping eviction both the Senate and Assembly one-house budgets also called for a Right to Counsel for tenants facing eviction and funding for eviction legal services this year! This is significant, and while our coalition is encouraged to see widespread support for Right to Counsel in the legislature, the funding included in the one-house budgets is not nearly enough and we demand the complete $260 million needed to fully fund Right to Counsel. 

“As a long-time Queens tenant, I can attest to the fact that housing insecurity has become a major issue for many of us. The lucky ones can stay in their homes because of the protections that Right to Counsel offers. Our Statewide Right to Counsel legislation would further protect and enforce our rights in New York City” said Wanda Martinez, a tenant leader at Catholic Migration Services. “In addition, passing and fully funding a Universal RTC will support tenant organizing groups and properly staffing legal service providers so they can effectively represent their clients. After multiple visits to Albany the Right to Counsel Coalition has educated and lobbied our legislators of the need for a Universal RTC throughout New York State so that all New Yorkers can feel secure in their homes.”

As Michelle Solanges, Assemblywoman and chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus said “In our budget priorities in the Black Hispanic, Asian Caucus, we called this (RTC) a demand for justice because we want to make sure our families are kept whole. When we talk about housing it’s not just about shelter, it’s about stability, it’s about having a home. It’s about people who are facing evictions having a path to Justice. Having legal representation makes all the difference. We know that Justice is blind, but we have a system that has been systematically racist to families, where low-income individuals cannot maneuver this legal system because of the economic injustices that have existed for so long in our country. We stand here and make sure that people facing eviction have the right to have representation by an attorney.”

The call for a statewide Right to Counsel has not only gained support by a majority of Senators and Assembly members, but has received widespread support from state legal providers. The 2024 Legal Services Support Letter for Right to Counsel was addressed to the leadership of New York state and affirms the implementation of a full Right to Counsel. This letter has received 43 sign-ups from legal providers from across the state. 

Sam Curran, Executive Director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project noted the broad support from state legal providers toward a fully funded Right to Counsel, saying “I’m here on behalf of the New York legal services coalition, a coalition of over 39 legal aid organizations. We represent tenants from areas throughout the state. We all agree that housing is a human right but that can’t be upheld without lawyers fighting for people. We do not just prevent evictions, we find solutions for our communities, to help make the affordable housing we have now stay affordable and ensure it remains affordable, and housing that is not habitable is habitable. I’ve been in Eviction court a lot these past months and have landlords trying to evict tenants who have sewage in their basements. I’m representing a mom who showed me a picture of her baby’s clothing eaten by rats. Habitability and Eviction are deeply linked.”

The passing of this bill is an opportunity for the state legislature to make a concerted effort to protect tenants from eviction. “Let’s turn the tide in New York State’s courts, from eviction machines into sanctuaries of justice, where tenants’ rights are upheld, landlords are held accountable, and homes are preserved,” said Senator Jackson. “Statewide Right to Counsel is our ticket to justice, dignity, and housing security for all. It’s time to invest wisely and compassionately, ensuring every tenant facing eviction has the shield of legal representation. Together, let’s keep roofs over heads and build a future where no one fears losing their home.” 

As Assemblywoman Dana Levenberg said “I support passing statewide Right to Counsel legislation for many reasons – everything we can do to keep our neighbors housed will make our communities more stable, prosperous, and safe. This legislation will support current and pending tenant protection measures, enabling people to understand and protect their rights. However, an underappreciated benefit of Right to Counsel laws is the financial one. Most cities & states with Right To Counsel save $3-$6 for every $1 invested in the policy. If passed, New York’s state & local governments could save millions of public dollars that would otherwise be spent on shelter, homelessness services and related costs. Statewide Right to Counsel is the right thing to do for so many reasons – let’s get it done in this budget!” 

Tenants and legislators both feel that the work done by the Right to Counsel Coalition has built an infrastructure for this important legislation to be passed this year, through the funding of the whole $260 million. “This (RTC) is the first step to leveling the playing field. This ensures that tenants have a right to fight, to stand up and to address the defenses they have. Too many times we forget they (the courts) lie to get us out because they know it’s so difficult for us to get an attorney. But that is going to change. Assemblymember Marcela Mityanes continued, “This tenant movement has grown, upstate and downstate tenants have come to fight and the governor has yet to see the wrath of what the tenants need. We have the money to ensure our people can fight themselves against baseless eviction against landlords that take advantage of them.”

Photo credit: 1-5) Katy Lasell.

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