NYC Council Members Worry Trump Could Jeopardize Taxpayer-Subsidized Lawyers for the Poor

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Mayor Bill de Blasio announce a budget agreement. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen for Observer)

The  City Council is calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to make sure that it is prepared to deal with the adverse impact that President Donald Trump‘s policies could have on its ability to provide taxpayer-financed counsel in housing and civil courts.

Last month, de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced a $93 million plan to provide universal access to legal advice for tenants facing eviction, including a free attorney for households earning $50,000 or less. Bronx Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson and Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine pushed the so-called “right-to-counsel” plan for three years before finally winning the mayor over

But at a hearing at City Hall today, Gibson expressed concern that undocumented immigrant tenants might be afraid to even show up in housing court, given the Trump administration’s expanded deportation agenda.

“People are worried,” Gibson said. “They’re very, very scared so it means that they are going to live in squalid conditions, substandard housing they’re going to deal with harassment…because they feel like they can’t come forward. So have you seen that and if so, what is our plan? Because our plan needs to be a little bit more creative now.”

Steve Banks, commissioner of the city’s Department of Social Services, pledged to work with Gibson, the City Council and the city’s other partners in the provider community to make sure that there is enough information available “about where people can get help”—without fear of an unwanted encounter with immigration officials.

“It’s one of the reasons in the early phases of the implementation…that we put more HRA workers in the courthouses and we put more HRA workers in the home base offices and I’ve got the tenant services unit out to be literally knocking on doors in neighborhoods to tell people that legal services are available,” Banks said.

He also said that in fiscal year 2017, the administration baselined $3.2 million in funding for the Immigrant Opportunity Initiative—in which networks of legal providers and community-based organizations conduct outreach to immigrants across the city and provide legal assistance to low-income foreign-born New Yorkers.

Nonetheless, the commissioner sounded an optimistic note about the “right-to-counsel” program. Banks said that in 2016, 27 percent of tenants facing eviction in housing court in the city had representation, up from just 1 percent in 2013, and that residential evictions by marshals declined by about 24 percent.

“We expect the expansion of services for tenants in Housing Court will mean even more tenants in need will have the aid of quality legal representation and a more level playing field in court,” Banks said during the hearing. “We will also present information about the impacts of these investments. At the same time, we will be widening our lens to present a broader picture of civil legal assistance in the city.”

Councilman Rory Lancman, chairman of Committee on Courts and Legal Services, asked Banks about whether Trump could endanger the funding for the “right-to-counsel” initiative. The city receives $7 billion a year from the federal government, and the president has vowed to sever funding to municipalities like New York that refuse to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Could you just give us a quick roadmap or picture of, for want of a better title, a way that Donald Trump can hurt us when it comes to legal services funding that trickles down or comes to New York City?” Lancman asked.

Banks said that the “potential elimination” of the federal Legal Services Corporation—which pays for representation in civil court for those who cannot afford a private attorney—is a concern under the Trump administration.

“There’s one grantee in New York City…and the loss of dollars there will have an impact,” he said. “And so we’re monitoring it closely. I’m sure that Legal Services NYC will provide you the latest information but that is a concern that we have.”

In response to another Lancman question, Banks said Washington could also slash the Community Development Block Grant, which finances everything from infrastructure to affordable housing to anti-poverty programs.

NYC Council Members Worry Trump Could Jeopardize Taxpayer-Subsidized Lawyers for the Poor