In State of the City, de Blasio announces new efforts to help struggling tenants

Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his fourth State of the City Address at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

In State of the City, de Blasio announces new efforts to help struggling tenants

In State of the City, de Blasio announces new efforts to help struggling tenants
February 14, 2017

During his final State of the City address this term, Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly addressed the men and women of New York City who have been forgotten or overlooked by the government.

“This is your city,” said the mayor, who announced a new effort to create 100,000 good-paying jobs – paying at least $50,000 annually – over the next decade. He pledged that his administration would create more homes for those earning up to 50 percent of the area median income by adjusting his marquee affordable housing plan to create 200,000 below market-rate homes. And he said the city would also reduce evictions by providing legal representation in housing court to anyone who cannot afford it, an initiative announced over the weekend.

The mayor’s support for the so-called Right to Counsel initiative was well-received among tenant advocates and among city lawmakers, many of whom had signed onto legislation in 2014 that would provide the poor with attorneys in housing court. Still, some advocates said they were not convinced de Blasio’s City Hall would help those most in need of affordable housing. One activist went so far as to suggest de Blasio’s announcements were an attempt to quell “massive community opposition” to his housing agenda as he heads into a re-election year.

New York City Councilman Mark Levine, the long-time sponsor of the Right to Counsel Act, disagreed with the criticism. He said the administration had already provided funding for legal representation for some tenants facing evictions and, seeing that they were more likely to win their cases, concluded that the efforts could help keep families out of homeless shelters. Levine said the administration agreed to expand services so that within five years, all of those at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level could walk into housing court with an attorney. He said this would cover two thirds of tenants in the court system, including public housing residents who have already been through NYCHA’s administrative proceedings and appealed to the courts.

New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres lauded the Right to Counsel agreement as one that may be remembered as the “seminal achievement of (City Council Speaker) Melissa Mark-Viverito’s Council.” Affordable housing activists also praised the agreement, including Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “There will be, hopefully, fewer frivolous suits brought by landlords, who are sort of using housing court cases more as a harassment tactic than as a legitimate legal process,” Goldstein said.

However, the $155 million price tag that de Blasio envisions when the initiative is fully implemented in five years seems low, according to multiple analyses. In 2014, the New York City Independent Budget Office estimated that the Right to Counsel Act would cost $173 million annually if the city did not alter how much it paid attorneys, and that figure jumped to $276 million a year if the city fully reimbursed legal firms for their services. Elizabeth Brown, an IBO analyst who wrote the report, said the $173 million floor would likely be higher in fiscal year 2022, when the mayor’s initiative will be fully phased in, due to inflation and the fact that it covers more people than the original legislation. But she also noted that eviction cases have decreased, which could bring down costs.

A 2016 report commissioned by the New York City Bar Association argued that the IBO overlooked a number of ways the Right to Counsel Act could save money, and concluded that it could produce a net $320 million annual savings in homelessness and related services. That report still put the cost of administering the legal services at $199 million.

Levine said the final legislation will treat legal representation as a mandate, so within five years the city ultimately may need to put more money towards it. He said the city will also have to monitor and assess whether attorneys need to be reimbursed at higher rates.

De Blasio’s plan to revamp his affordable housing plan so 10,000 more units are reserved for lower-income New Yorkers elicited more muted enthusiasm. Under the change, about 4,000 additional units will be set aside for those earning up to 30 percent of the area median income, as well as 6,000 for those earning between 31 and 50 percent of AMI. AMI is a federal measure of the metro area income, which in 2016 amounted to $63,500 for one person. Many of these units will be geared toward senior citizens and veterans.

Katie Goldstein, campaign coordinator for the Real Affordability for All Coalition, described the affordable housing move as a good first step. But she argued that since the bulk of the units constructed under de Blasio’s plan have targeted middle income folks, the administration needs to retrain its efforts on the lower income families whose housing needs are most dire.

“There has been mass community opposition against an affordable housing plan that has really not worked for the lowest income New Yorkers,” she said. “So I think there is no question that there is election concerns, that the administration is thinking about how can they respond to that and be able to have an affordable housing plan that actually meets the needs.”

De Blasio invoked the historic election of Donald Trump as president, telling the audience that financial stress motivated Americans to elect Trump but that the president has not responded with policies aimed at actually providing relief. Given this atmosphere, de Blasio argued the city must more aggressively embrace its storied role as a refuge for all people. In the boroughs, that means assisting the many New Yorkers struggling to keep up with rising rents, de Blasio said.

“This affordability crisis threatens who we are, threatens the very soul of this city,” de Blasio said. “I say to any New Yorker who is struggling to pay the bills, anyone fighting to stay in their own neighborhood, anyone who is just starting their retirement and are not sure if they are going to have enough to keep going – I say, again, very simply, “This is your city, and we are here for you.’”

Sarina Trangle