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Editorial: Right to Counsel Levels Playing Field

The passing of the Right to Counsel Bill, a measure that offers pro bono attorneys to residents taking their landlords to Bronx Housing Court and relieves tenants unaware of the archaic Housing Court system that is by all intents and purposes chaotic. The New York City Council debate this agreement for two years, and have finally done right by the Bronx’s working poor.

For anyone who faces the task of taking their landlord to court, they would tell you it can be overwhelming, especially for those facing eviction. Usually, landlords, particularly big name ones, do not go to court. They hire attorneys who have spent years gaming the system to their advantage. In some instances, a housing court case can drag for months, perhaps years, before a resolution is secure. By then, a tenant may have moved out despite having a winnable case against their landlord. For the poor, going to court costs money, including the loss of a day’s wage.

This lack of representation and ability to understand the Housing Court system has allowed landlords such as Ved Parkash, the Bronx’s worst landlord, to operate smoothly and get out of legal jams. It’s allowed landlords such as MK Realty Group LLC to take John McKee of Norwood to court even as he struggles with a stroke that’s rendered him virtually immovable.

But while it’s commendable for the Council to have come through on the promise of leveling the playing field, its members should keep a critical eye on whether this new system will morph into the dysfunctional public defender system, where overworked attorneys in the criminal justice system spend but less than an hour poring over a case before literally defending their client in court. It’s characterized the system as imbalanced, working against criminal defendants whose lives are in the hands of a public defender still familiarizing themselves with the case even as they’re in a courtroom representing their client.

Over ten years ago, the Kaye Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense released a report declaring the public defender system to be “incapable of providing each defendant with effective legal representation that he or she is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and Laws of the State of New York.” The trend continues, though not on an egregious level, thanks to groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, which won a landmark case in 2014 that mandated New York State improve its public defender system. Still, problems persist. A public defender simply cannot handle the barrage of caseload it must take on.

It’s the hope that the new system can stave off evictions at a critical time in New York City, where the quest to fix the housing crunch has inspired price gouging among landlords seeking to replace an existing tenant for one who can pay more rent. The stories are all too common in a borough that remains comparatively cheaper than the rest of New York City.

And with gentrification an all too real event in pockets of the Bronx, the rollout of housing attorneys couldn’t come at an opportune time.

 

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