Sound View Summit Addresses Tenant Protection in Eviction Proceedings

Three seniors from Mamaroneck High School discussed the critical importance of the right to an attorney for tenants and ongoing legislation in Westchester County, with the SV Summit panel.

By Janet Bear

Three Mamaroneck High School students from the OCRA (Original Civic Research in Action) program, along with their teacher Joe Liberti, spoke at the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit webinar, co-hosted by LMC Media on Tuesday, June 13, explaining the importance of the right to counsel in eviction proceedings.

Four years ago, Mamaroneck Village Judge Daniel Gallagher spoke to OCRA students about what he saw in his courtroom during eviction proceedings: “The landlords bring lawyers and tenants bring babies in strollers.” This huge power imbalance (90% of landlords have legal representation but only 10% of tenants) means that most tenants lose their business quickly, often in less than 4 minutes. Once a tenant is evicted, their future ability to rent is severely affected (most landlords immediately reject someone with an eviction record), they are more likely to experience long-term poverty and suffer from trauma psychological and generational. Caitlyn Carpenter, Allison Hecht and Anna McDonald, three of the OCRA students who heard Justice Gallagher’s speech, decided that “Right to Counsel in Westchester County” would be their OCRA project. Two other students, Todd Freifeld and Frances McDowell, were also part of the OCRA group that spent four years working on this issue, but were unable to attend the Summit presentation.

After Anna presented the overview, Allison explained that the right to counsel (R2C – the guarantee of legal representation in eviction proceedings) currently exists in three states (Washington, Connecticut and Maryland) as well as in a number of major US cities, including New York, but does not exist elsewhere in New York State. Allison said tenants are twice as likely to stay in their homes if they are represented by a lawyer in eviction proceedings. As noted in the Stout Feasibility Study (published March 2022), 42% of tenants in New York (outside New York) do not even appear in court because they do not understand their rights and immediately lose their cause. It is estimated that almost a third of these tenants would not be evicted had they been represented by a lawyer.

Eviction is the number one cause of homelessness. Pupils are 3 times more likely to repeat a year if they experience housing instability. 1 to 2% of suicides are linked to an eviction. Workers who experience eviction are 11-22% more likely to be fired.

Beyond the devastating impact that evictions can have on tenants, evictions can also result in significant financial costs for municipalities. Allison provided numbers on the costs of homelessness in New York (emergency shelter for one family exceeds $81,000/year) and said that since R2C was enacted in New York, 84% of tenants have been able to stay in their house. R2C is estimated to have saved NYC $320 million per year.

In Westchester County, there are two sources of free legal representation. Hudson Valley Legal Services served over 5,000 clients in 2021, but demand was 2-3 times higher and they do not serve undocumented people. The Hudson Valley Justice Center serves undocumented immigrants, but their capacity is very limited.

Caitlyn talked about what’s going on in Westchester County. In 2020 the Westchester Right to Council Coalition was formed, made up of legal providers, community organizers and faith leaders. County Executive George Latimer introduced legislation in May 2022 to create the Housing Council Office (within the Department of Social Services) which will be responsible for running a scheme to provide legal services through the through designated organizations or qualified professionals to tenants up to certain income levels. The bill is currently in committee, addressing five concerns raised by the coalition. It is hoped that lawmakers will be able to vote on this legislation this summer. During the question and answer session, George Latimer mentioned that funds have been budgeted to increase funding for legal services. If Westchester County joins NYC in enacting right-to-counsel legislation, it will help state legislators pursue their actions at the state level.

How can I help you? Anna said individuals should call, email or write a letter to their local legislator urging them to pass this legislation. In addition, faith communities are also urged to support this legislation. Further information and examples of communications can be found at https://bit.ly/WestchesterRight2Counsel .

The Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit is an informal community council that seeks to improve the life of the community by keeping it informed of key issues of concern. The next Zoom show, co-hosted by LMC Media, will be on Tuesday, September 13 at 8:00 a.m. Visit the local summit online: https://www.localsummit-lm.org/ LMC Media: https://lmcmedia.org/.

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