NYC Mayor Adams urged to boost funding for struggling Right to Counsel program for tenants facing eviction

Four Democratic borough presidents – Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, Antonio Reynoso of Brooklyn, Mark Levine of Manhattan, and Donovan Richards of Queens – have written a letter to Department of Social Services Commissioner Molly Parks, urging the city to increase funding for the Right to Counsel (RTC) program.

The initiative provides free legal representation to low-income tenants who face eviction. The program has become overburdened, according to the letter obtained. The borough presidents warned that the RTC has reached a “breaking point” and “will become a national embarrassment” if it is not adequately funded.

Four borough presidents are urging the city to increase funding for the Right to Counsel (RTC) program, which offers free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. In a letter to Department of Social Services Commissioner Molly Parks, Democratic borough presidents Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, Antonio Reynoso of Brooklyn, Mark Levine of Manhattan, and Donovan Richards of Queens expressed concerns that the program has reached a “breaking point” and needs additional funding.

The officials called for the allocation of $461 million in the budget for the next fiscal year, which is much higher than the $166 million earmarked by Mayor Adams in his recent executive budget.

The RTC program, which is overseen by DSS, is designed to provide “universal access” to legal aid for those facing eviction. However, due to a shortage of public defenders and rising eviction rates, thousands of people have been unable to receive assistance, and RTC providers have turned away over 10,000 eviction cases since March 2022.

“There is just no getting around the fact that we need to hire more lawyers and we need to pay them better and we need to reduce their caseloads,” Levine told the Daily News. “And all of those things require [an increase in the] budget.”

A DSS spokesperson said the agency is supportive of “any efforts which would help slow down the calendaring of cases by the courts.“

“We continue to strengthen tenant protections and invest in our first-in-the-nation Right to Counsel initiative that was implemented citywide last year and are working to increase legal services providers and launching a pilot at Brooklyn Housing Court to connect at-risk tenants to emergency rental assistance,” the spokesperson, Neha Sharma, said in a statement.

Legal providers have reported a “significant” increase in eviction filings in every borough since 2021. They added that even if fully staffed, they would only be able to represent one-third of the expected 120,000 eviction cases this year.

“Our clients already face an uphill battle in housing court, and denying them their right to legal representation makes it all the more likely that they will end up unjustly displaced from their homes and communities,” said Adriene Holder, chief attorney of the Civil Practice at the Legal Aid Society.

“During a time of rising rents and unprecedented inflation, the City must invest in its most vulnerable citizens and fund programs like Right to Counsel,” she added.

Monday’s letter was not the first time the BPs rallied around RTC. Gibson and Levine previously pushed for safeguards to the program last year, and the pair also spearheaded the original bill in 2017 when they served on the City Council. The city budget has yet to be finalized, and Levine said it was unclear whether the funding asks for RTC would be met.

“But the case is compelling, the need is huge,” he said. “The time is now to solve this.”