Legal aid attorneys in New York City fight low pay and overwork as tens of thousands face eviction | #students | #parents

In New York City, legal aid lawyers and support staff responsible for providing legal representation to lower-income tenants facing eviction are employed by the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services, nonprofit corporations that contract with the city to provide these services. These workers are members of United Auto Workers (UAW) locals 2325 and 2320, respectively. Legal Aid and Legal Services workers are the lowest-paid lawyers and legal workers in New York City, among the most expensive cities in the world.

Legal aid attorneys protest evictions outside of New York City Civil Court in Brooklyn in June 2020 [Photo: Association of Legal Aid Attorneys – UAW 2325]

Legal Aid lawyers have been without a contract for four months, under conditions of grossly inadequate pay and extreme overwork due to a surge in tenant evictions caused by the continuing pandemic and its economic consequences. Legal Services workers are operating under an existing contract that does not keep up with inflation. Neither of these critically important issues has been addressed by the UAW. This is despite the fact that the city had previously committed to measures dealing with both. 

The initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 greatly amplified the preexisting shortage of affordable housing. As the economic impact of the pandemic intensified, increasing numbers of working class families were unable to meet their monthly rent payments. To forestall an otherwise inevitable social explosion, New York State imposed a temporary halt to evictions for nonpayment of rent. 

However, as the ruling class buffered itself with billions of dollars in bailouts and rapidly imposed its “let it rip” policy to normalize COVID and drive people back to work, the eviction ban was lifted in January 2022. The result was a tidal wave of eviction proceedings initiated by landlords against tenants who were not the beneficiaries of any such financial rescue. Instead, they still suffer the devastating effects of the pandemic, including rising inflation and rents, and the lack of counsel has left most victims defenseless against the landlords’ high-priced legal enforcers. 

In 2017, over two years prior to the onset of the pandemic, New York City passed the Right to Counsel law, which guarantees legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction. The annual Right to Counsel Progress Report for Fiscal Year 2021 boasted that since the beginning of 2020, 100 percent of tenants with calendared eviction cases had access to legal services. It reported that 71 percent of tenants who appeared in Housing Court had full representation by attorneys, nearly double the pre-pandemic rate of 38 percent, and an exponential increase over the 1 percent of tenants who had lawyers in 2013. 

But less than one year later, at least 17,000 tenants threatened with eviction faced landlords in courts with no lawyer, and by September 25, only 6 percent of evicted tenants went to court with legal representation. Not unsurprisingly, this drastic shift coincided with the lifting by Democratic Governor Hochul of the statewide COVID-19 Eviction Moratorium on January 15, 2022, literally at the high point of the Omicron pandemic surge. A federal moratorium had been lifted in August of 2021, and federal rental assistance has all but dried up. 

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