Low-income tenants who are facing eviction in the city and county soon will have access to free legal aid for the complex and often confusing process.
The Right to Counsel Pilot Project was announced Aug. 25 by the Justice for All Coalition.
The project dovetails with the Special COVID Intervention Part (SCIP) of city and county courts, which was established by the court system in response to the pandemic. The SCIP is scheduled to start in early September.
The Right to Counsel project is effective immediately. It is designed to put tenants on equal footing with landlords when an eviction goes to court. Tenants who need legal help can call (585) 504-6195, or apply at www.tenantdefense.org.
“For too long most tenants have been forced into eviction court without a lawyer,” said Barbara Rivera, a tenant organizer with the citywide Tenant Union of Rochester, NY. “Hopefully, this will help tenants keep their housing.”
A right to counsel and a consolidated housing court have been in the works for the past few years. But COVID-19 put both concepts on the fast track and highlighted the need for tenants to have representation if they face eviction.
While current federal and state law do not absolve tenants of their responsibility to pay rent during COVID-19, those statues prevent eviction warrants from being carried out. The concern is that when the moratorium is lifted, hundreds if not thousands of tenants who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic could lose their homes.
On average, 8,000 evictions a year are filed in Rochester City Court. About 2,500 evictions are filed a year in County Court, according to Justice for All.
“The world is facing a health crisis, but also is facing a financial crisis,” said Adrian Neil of the Rochester Black Bar Association, part of the Justice for All Coalition. “Unfortunately Black and brown people are disproportionately affected, not just by the health crisis but the financial one.”
Neil said that with the calls for social justice and equity, helping low-income tenants “is vital. By doing this, we can hopefully stem the potential crisis of homelessness.”
Homelessness and job loss can be intertwined for adults. For children, being uprooted can disrupt their education.
Details of the Special COVID Intervention Part still are being worked out and are expected to be announced in the next few weeks.
The vision is that all landlord-tenant cases will flow through SCIP, which will be overseen by a City Court judge and a County Court judge. Justice Craig J. Doran, administrative judge for New York’s Seventh Judicial District, said the court will have three components:
- assuring that each tenant has the opportunity to consult with an attorney;
- providing the option of a settlement conference to resolve a dispute; and
- bringing together all the entities in the community, such as 211/Lifeline and the United Way, that offer various types of help to tenants.
The pilot Right to Counsel program is receiving $460,000 from the city through CARES Act funding, which goes to services to prevent, prepare for and respond to difficulties associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County is the lead agency, but the Justice for All coalition also involves Legal Aid Society of Rochester, Legal Assistance of Western New York and the Rochester Black Bar Association.
The agencies also are recruiting attorneys from private firms.
Outside of New York City, the right to counsel is unheard of. The pilot project is expected to be a model for other cities and counties. Justice for All said it expects to have data at the end of the year to prove the project’s worth in preventing homelessness.
As for the Special COVID Intervention Part, it’s not known whether it will morph into the long sought-after housing court once the pandemic has passed.