On a recent Sunday in February, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that the City will pass legislation guaranteeing free, universal access to legal services for people living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and facing eviction. Funding associated with the legislation will also provide free legal consultation to any New Yorker involved in an eviction case. New York City is the first jurisdiction in the country to offer tenants these protections.
Standing alongside the officials was Distinguished Adjunct Professor Andrew Scherer, Policy Director of New York Law School’s Impact Center for Public Interest Law. Professor Scherer has worked for decades on a “right to counsel” for low-income tenants facing eviction. His Right to Counsel Project at the Impact Center was a key force in the advocacy effort that led to the legislation.
“It’s remarkable,” he reflected. “I’ve been a lawyer for almost 40 years. To the extent I’ve had a role in this very collaborative effort, it is the greatest achievement of my career.”
After graduating from law school in 1978, Professor Scherer joined Legal Services NYC, representing Bronx tenants in housing court. He quickly learned that tenants who went to housing court with an attorney were far more likely to stay in their homes, get poor housing conditions fixed, and fight illegal rents than tenants who went to court alone.
“New York has good tenant protection laws, but you need an attorney,” he said. “The process is complex and moves fast. It’s nearly impossible for people without law degrees and financial resources to navigate an eviction proceeding. In addition, there is so little affordable housing in the city that eviction almost inevitably renders low-income people homeless; keeping people in their homes prevents the trauma of homelessness and the enormous shelter costs to the City.”
During his 32 years at Legal Services NYC, where he eventually served as Executive Director, Professor Scherer pushed for a right to counsel in eviction cases. He authored several law review articles and served as lead attorney in Donaldson v. State of New York, a 1989 class action seeking to establish that right. (The Donaldson case was dismissed on procedural grounds, but the attention it garnered led to New York City setting aside funds for legal services.)
“We would gain some traction about once a decade,” Professor Scherer said.
2014 was a pivotal year for the effort. By then, the loose alliance of activists had coalesced into a tightly organized team of tenant and community groups and legal experts called the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. In addition, New York City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Mark Levine had introduced legislation guaranteeing a right to counsel in eviction cases. A concerted grassroots community organizing effort, led by Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) brought public attention and growing support.
In late 2014, Professor Scherer and the Impact Center hosted the Coalition and other experts at Housing Justice: A Public Forum on New Yorkers’ Right to Counsel in Eviction Proceedings. At the event, tenants, judges, City officials, bar leaders, academics, and community organizers assessed the benefits of guaranteed tenant legal services, including fewer families in shelters and the preservation of affordable housing stock.
By 2016, the legislation had gained further support; 42 of the 51 City Council members, as well as community and borough planning boards, labor unions, faith leaders, bar associations, medical providers, and many others had united behind it. The City Council is expected to vote on it in the next few weeks. The program will be built up over the course of five years, and by 2022, the City’s total investment in anti-eviction legal services will climb to $155 million. The new funds will initially target communities with disproportionate homeless populations and neighborhoods where rents have risen sharply in recent years.
The Impact Center’s Right to Counsel Project has had the benefit of research and other assistance from a number of Impact Center fellows and student volunteers since its inception in 2014, including Renee Daniel ’16, Sean Farrow ’16, Fadel Friedlander-fulkerson 2L Evening, Young Mee Kim 3L Evening, Chrystina Lopera ’16, Dale MacKey 3L, Sherbune Paul ’16, and Maralee Sanders ’16.
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