Up For Re-Election, De Blasio Finally Bows to Push for Taxpayer-Funded Lawyers in Housing Court

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito share a moment after announcing a budget deal.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito share a moment after announcing a budget deal last year. William Alatriste/NYC Council

Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito revealed a $93 million program to guarantee legal counsel to any tenant facing eviction—after nearly three years resisting a push from the Council to create such an initiative.

As the mayor looks to waltz to the Democratic nomination in September, he rallied with the term-limited Mark-Viverito and advocates in support of the proposal at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in Manhattan. De Blasio had previously stated that he would only back “right to counsel” in housing court if the federal government financed it, and called it a “very, very costly” measure that would preclude funding for other programs.

“We are the biggest city in the country to level the playing field between tenants and landlords in housing court,” de Blasio said. “To anyone being forced out of their home or neighborhood, we are fighting for you. This is still your city.”

The measure, which Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine first proposed in 2014, currently has 42 co-sponsors, a majority strong enough to override a mayoral veto. Yet it has languished for years in committee—the fate of nearly all legislation de Blasio opposes, thanks to the parliamentary power of Mark-Viverito.

“Bringing more justice to vulnerable New Yorkers is a hallmark of this City Council,” the speaker said today. “The groundbreaking legislation outlined by the City Council and the mayor will ensure that no low-income New Yorker is forced from their home without legal representation.”

The program has a five-year phase-in, with $15 million set aside in the city budget due in June, and will go into full effect in Fiscal Year 2022—the last year de Blasio propose a budget for, should he serve a second full term. The new outlay will come in addition to the $62 million the city already allocates annually for tenant legal services, which were previously focused solely toward individuals facing abuse and harassment from their landlord.

The program will grant a free attorney to any household that finds itself in eviction proceedings and earns less than $50,000 annually. Tenants making more than that will still have access to free consultation.

The mayor’s office said that, during the rollout period, it would target the program toward neighborhoods with the highest density of tenants in housing court. All told, the it estimated that the program will assist 400,000 New Yorkers annually once fully operational.

So far, de Blasio’s only opponents in the Democratic primary are Queens State Senator Tony Avella and former Brooklyn Councilman Sal Albanese, both more conservative Democrats who have failed to gain traction in past mayoral bids. Insiders have long speculated about possible challenges from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., city Comptroller Scott Stringer and former Council Speaker Christine Quinn, though none of them have yet announced their candidacies.