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Tenant ‘right to counsel’ program begins in Rochester

Aug 25, 2020

The Monroe County Hall of Justice in downtown Rochester.
Credit CITY file photo

Every Rochester resident facing eviction proceedings in a city court will now have access to free legal representation under a program that launched Tuesday.

The so-called “right to counsel” program also includes an eviction hotline that city residents can call for assistance. The initiatives were part of a larger eviction prevention and homeless services package passed last week by City Council. Under the legislation, $460,000 of federal coronavirus pandemic relief funds were allocated for the right to counsel pilot program, which will run through June 30, 2021.

Housing activists have long advocated for a more equitable system in eviction court. Barbara Rivera, an organizer with the Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union, called the right to counsel pilot a win for Rochester tenants.

“For too long, most tenants have been forced into eviction court without a lawyer,” Rivera said. “Expanded legal counsel will give us tenants a better footing to keep our housing and live in better conditions."

According to a 2013 Harvard Law Review study, 90 percent of landlords had legal representation in eviction court, while just 11 percent of tenants facing eviction had attorneys.

The right to counsel project is a collaboration between three nonprofit legal services organizations: Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County, the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, and Legal Assistance of Western New York. Tina Foster, executive director of Volunteer Legal Services, said she expects about 5,200 volunteers to participate in the project.

The organization is also trying to establish similar programs in the towns of Greece and East Rochester. In Irondequoit, Volunteer Legal Services has for several years operated a program to provide legal assistance to tenants facing eviction.

“This is a well-thought-out plan that we hope will serve everybody in Monroe County, and will allow them to have representation when there is a threat of them losing their homes,” Foster said during a news conference Tuesday morning.

City Council members began discussing the right to counsel program and laying its initial groundwork roughly two years ago. Councilmember Jackie Ortiz said the pandemic drove City Council to implement the project

“Without assistance navigating complex court rules, legal processes, settlement discussions, tenants bear the risk of life changing trauma and disruption, and we hope to break the pattern of unequal representation between tenants and landlords,” Ortiz said.

In New York, eviction proceedings are currently on hold through Oct. 1. Beyond that date, renters suffering from pandemic-related financial hardship will still have some protections under the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which was passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The act prohibits landlords from evicting tenants who haven’t paid rent if they are facing financial hardship because of COVID-19 or the pandemic. Under the law, tenants would accrue unpaid rent as a debt that they’d still owe. Those protections will remain in effect indefinitely, until all pandemic restrictions on nonessential gatherings and businesses end.

The legal process around evictions is complicated, and tenants facing eviction are vulnerable, Administrative Judge for New York’s Seventh Judicial District Craig Doran said Tuesday.

“This levels the playing field,” Doran said. “You always think of the scales of justice when you think of courts, and justice always works better when those scales are level.”

Doran also said that, to help address housing issues fueled by the pandemic, a special COVID Intervention part will be established in the Seventh Judicial District. Details on that initiative will be announced in coming weeks, he added.

“We created this part as a place where all of these interests can converge, primarily to the benefit of people at risk of losing their homes,” Doran said.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.