Eviction cases overwhelm legal aid 6 weeks after moratorium

Anna Aboody of Mobilization for Justice and Diana Ayala, Council Member (LinkedIn, Council for NYC)

A city council committee hearing held to assess the status of evictions since the moratorium ended six weeks ago found an influx of filings threatened to overwhelm legal aid providers.

Anna Aboody, a nonprofit attorney for Mobilization for Justice in the Bronx, compared the flood of cases to the dozens of Covid patients entering understaffed hospitals at the height of the pandemic.

“Unlike the overburdened emergency and intensive care units which had no control over the number of people requiring care, the Office of Court Management does not and should not continue as if it had no other choice than to schedule as many new cases as possible,” Aboody mentioned.

The courts have turned to planning cases for tenants who have yet to find a lawyer, which the lawyer called a “misplaced emergency”, rather than prioritizing those in which the two parties have a lawyer.

State data judicial system show that around 18,000 cases have been filed since the start of the year, well below the more than 43,000 filed in the first two months of 2020, before the moratorium began.

However, Jesenia Ponce, chief attorney at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, said the new filings add to a backlog of more than 200,000 cases that have remained unresolved throughout the pandemic.

Lawyers and attorneys have argued that moving cases forward when the tenant hasn’t found an attorney undermines the effectiveness of Right to Counsel, a program the city expanded last year to ensure legal representation. free to all low-income tenants.

“We want to be clear that we expect the court to adjourn every case until a tenant has been connected with a lawyer,” said N’Jelle Murphy, Chief Tenants of the Flatbush Tenant Coalition.

Another problem: Local law 53, which requires the city to work with advocacy groups to educate tenants about their access to the right to an attorney. The legislation, signed by then-mayor Bill de Blasio last May, has yet to be “fully implemented,” according to attorneys and tenant attorneys.

Laura Springer, a tenant leader with Catholic Migration Services, said the city has allocated $3.6 million for the outreach act, money community organizations have yet to see.

Council member Diana Ayala, who chairs the general welfare committee, said she was unaware the law had not been enforced.

Other attorneys have criticized the accessibility of city-funded rent relief and housing vouchers, testifying that bureaucracy puts more tenants at risk of court-ordered eviction.

Although tenants can still apply for the Emergency Housing Assistance Program to get up to a year of eviction protection, ERAP is strapped for money and new funds have yet to be secured.

As a stopgap solution, the nonprofits are advising tenants to apply for One Shot Deal, a city program that offers temporary loans to people facing eviction. But these advocates argue that the rules of the program prevent many tenants from getting help.

Marika Dias, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center, said the city should reduce the requirement that tenants must prove their ability to pay rent later and increase available financing. The program typically distributes around $150 million per year; in comparison, ERAP has exhausted its $2 billion in funding and needs an additional $2 billion to meet pending requests.

Although the city and state expanded their housing voucher programs last year to federal Section 8 levels, advocates said strict requirements and processing delays have prevented qualified applicants from getting a housing through so-called CityFHEPS vouchers, which puts some of these tenants at risk of displacement.

Kathleen Keller, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, called on the city to eliminate the rule that tenants must have lived in the housing system for three months or received an eviction notice to be eligible. She also said the city should make the program available to all rent-deprived New Yorkers who earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level “to really address the [eviction] crisis” and streamline the application process.

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