By David Lesch, Esq. 

As our New York sports teams enter the postseason, and as of this morning the Yankees now have an extended vacation, it is clear that when a team is without a key player it makes one wonder what might be if the playing field was level.   The same question arises when landlords and tenants do battle in the Housing Courts throughout the City of New York. I also wonder what the outcome would be in these courtrooms if the scales of justice were also level.  


For anyone who has been to Housing Court –and I’ve spent much time there as a Court Attorney assigned to a Civil Court Judge in the Bronx– it is clear that a party with proper representation has a better chance of a positive outcome.  Statistics show that when faced with eviction tenants with legal representation fare much better.  Stipulations dealing with back rent are signed in the hallways and many a judge will work with counsel to make sure the tenant will not have to vacate their premises.  


But what of those without means and cannot afford an attorney.  Luckily, the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC have offices in some of the Housing Courts providing assistance to people who sign-up early.  The majority of tenants, however, aren’t lucky enough to have assigned counsel.  It’s “first come, first served.”  


Many times the landlords who seek eviction usually do so to convert the apartment so they could charge higher rent.  And I’ve yet to see a landlord who seeks an eviction without an attorney.  


Is this really fair?  


The New York Times reported that from 2005 through 2008 the South Bronx provided more than 1300 families legal assistance which resulted in the prevention of eviction in 86% of those cases.  The Times reported that “It cost around $450,000, but saved New York City more than $700,000 in estimated shelter costs”.  Obviously it pays to help the tenants of our city.  


And our leaders are finally taking notice.  Politicians throughout our city now are addressing the idea that the establishment of publicly funded legal services for low income families and housing costs is a cost-effective social policy that could actually prevent evictions that lead to homelessness.  Mayor Bill de Blasio has a housing strategy that includes addressing a right to counsel in civil actions that impact basic needs like housing.  


In fact, Mark K. Levine, a Democratic councilman has sponsored a bill mandating the right of counsel for tenants.  Levine has argued:  “Everyone facing a life-altering judgment shouldn’t have to face that without an attorney.” The City Council has passed budgets increasing funding for agencies providing low-income tenants legal representation. Also, people living in areas being re-zoned may gain access to legal counsel. But it is not enough.  


We need clear legislation that allows tenants immediate access to counsel whenever they walk into housing court.   Certainly we should be leveling the playing field.  Tenants should be afforded the right to walk into Housing Court represented by a knowledgeable lawyer.  We can either fund legal services for low-income families now, or fund the shelter system later.  As a society, I think we owe it to low-income tenants to help now.  


Let’s level the playing field and see what happens.


Todays Verdict_David LeschDavid Lesch is an attorney and host of ‘Today’s Verdict with David Lesch‘ on Bronxnet. Today”s Verdict airs Tuesday nights at 6:30pm, Cablevision channel 67, Fios channel 33. 


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