Policy Brief: National Lessons of NYC’s Universal Access to Counsel Program
In 2017, New York City enacted the first legislation in the country providing legal representation for all income-eligible tenants facing eviction. The legislation, sponsored by Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Mark Levine, has been implemented in four zip codes in each of New York’s five boroughs, with citywide universal access mandated by July 2022. As major cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, Cleveland, and Boston consider expanding access to counsel, New York’s experience offers important lessons for program design and implementation.
To help disseminate these lessons, the NYU Furman Center released a Policy Brief examining the implementation of New York City’s Universal Access to Counsel (UAC) program for litigants appearing in housing court. Over the last year, NYU Furman Center researchers closely observed the UAC program’s launch, conducting scores of interviews with key stakeholders including tenants, judges, legal services lawyers, landlords’ attorneys, tenant advocates and organizers, and court personnel.
The Policy Brief covers several aspects of the UAC roll-out in New York City, including:
- the phase-in period;
- the selection of legal service providers and potential effects on their staffing needs;
- eligibility screening and the assignment of counsel;
- tenant education and rejection of counsel;
- housing court infrastructure and its ability to meet the demands of UAC; and
- UAC’s effect on the practice of housing law generally, and the implications of new models on landlords and tenants.
Surprisingly, stakeholders estimate that 15-30 percent of eligible defendants in zip codes where UAC rolled out declined representation. To encourage take-up of the program, jurisdictions with plans to expand access to counsel should focus on streamlining eligibility screening and assignment of counsel, and on educating tenants, judges, and court personnel about the benefits of representation. The brief also suggests careful thought when choosing which legal service providers will offer services in a given neighborhood or jurisdiction. Building on existing community relationships can both increase tenant acceptance of counsel and lead to more effective representation.
Universal access to counsel requires more housing attorneys, and cities that expand access need to build in time and resources to recruit and train this new cohort of practitioners. They also need strategies to help existing attorneys adapt to a changing practice area. Observers report that as fewer cases settle, the landlords’ bar has adopted a more aggressive posture, seeking attorneys’ fees and demanding that tenants deposit rent in escrow accounts in order to secure adjournments.
Cities should consider the possibility that expanding legal representation will require additional resources for the underlying infrastructure and staffing of the court system itself, in order to handle an increase in the number and complexity of pleadings filed. There may also be a need for more space in court houses to accommodate both the administration of the program and confidential attorney/client conversations.
As the costs of formal eviction increase, owners may instead turn to other methods to remove unwanted tenants. Jurisdictions that expand access to counsel should take steps to monitor the program’s impact on landlord/tenant interactions outside the courtroom and take appropriate action to protect tenants’ rights through other enforcement means if necessary.