The Partnership for the Homeless

A Right to a Lawyer to Save Your Home

A response to the New York Times Editorial, September 23, 2016

Providing tenants with a right to counsel will go a long way in creating a balance of power in Housing Court, where the vast majority of tenants are vulnerable to evictions because, unlike landlords, they go unrepresented by attorneys. In a time of rapid gentrification of neighborhoods throughout the City, attorneys can surely provide a bulwark against tenant harassment that often leads to illegal evictions.

Let’s be careful though to not overstate the right to counsel as a homeless prevention tool, as if it’s the key to finally unlocking the solution we’ve been searching for after all these years.

Yes, it’s certainly an important tool in our tool-kit, but no remedy. In reality, for many young families in shelter this right will be illusory. Statistically, based on past studies, nearly 50% of families in shelter were never the leaseholder of the apartment to begin with and not subject to eviction proceedings where counsel would have helped. Instead, most were doubling up with families and friends until the relationship became untenable – and shelter was their last resort.

Moreover, while having counsel in eviction proceedings is critical for those families in housing court, especially in the short-term, it’s only addressing a symptom of a much larger problem – and not the cause.

Indeed, if we’re serious about solving homelessness with a longer term strategy, we need to focus on our housing affordability crisis and the lack of economic opportunity (e.g., the dearth of effective job training and skill building programs) that is plaguing those who unfortunately find themselves and their children languishing in City shelters.

If we don’t look at larger, root causes, we’re simply relegating ourselves to accepting poverty and homelessness as inevitable in our City, ignoring the depth of the problem at hand, providing counsel to some who find themselves about to fall over the precipice.

Arnold S. Cohen
President & CEO