The Impact of Legal Counsel on Outcomes for Poor Tenants in New York City's Housing Court: Results of a Randomized Experiment

Article excerpt

This article presents results of the first randomized experimental evaluation of a legal assistance program for low-income tenants in New York City's Housing Court. The results demonstrate that the provision of legal counsel produces large differences in outcomes for low-income tenants in housing court, independent of the merits of the case. For example, only 22% of represented tenants had final judgments against them, compared with 51 % of tenants without legal representation. Similarly large advantages for tenants with an attorney also were found in eviction orders and stipulations requiring the landlord to provide rent abatements or repairs. In addition, the results suggest that a program of legal assistance for low-income tenants would not increase significantly the number of appearances in court, although it would increase the number of days to final judgment. The program may enhance the efficiency of adjudication by reducing the number of motions filed, particularly post-judgment motions. Limitations and policy implications of the study are discussed.

Introduction

This article reports findings from a randomized experiment to test the effects of a program that provided legal representation to low-income tenants in New York City's Housing Court. While almost all landlords in Housing Court have the benefit of legal representation, the vast majority of tenants do not (Task Force 1986; Community & Training Resource Center 1993). Legal advocates for the poor have thus argued for a right to legal counsel in Housing Court, similar to the right that exists in Criminal Court, on grounds that it would ensure due process of law and procedural safeguards in an area of vital interest to tenants, their families, and society (Gideon v. Wainwright 1963). Aside from the question of cost, arguments against a right to counsel in Housing Court center primarily on the administrative burden on the Court that such an expansion of legal assistance might entail (Heydebrand & Seron 1990). Briefly, the findings from this experiment show that low-income tenants with legal representation experience significantly more beneficial outcomes than their counterparts who do not have legal representation, independent of the merits of the case. Furthermore, the findings from this experiment suggest that the presence of legal representation may impose only modest time delays or other indicators of administrative burden on the court system and may even be more efficient for the courts in certain respects.

The article begins with the background of the study, including the history and function of Housing Court, prior research on the operations and outcomes of Housing Court, and the design and development of the legal assistance program that was the object of the evaluation. It then presents the experimental design of the evaluation, presents empirical findings, and discusses the limitations as well as the implications of the findings for housing policy and the reform of Housing Court in New York City.

Background

In the early 1970s, the State of New York created a specialized Housing Court Part under the jurisdiction of the Civil Court of the City of New York (hereafter referred to as Housing Court) to enforce state and local laws regulating housing conditions and to adjudicate landlord-tenant disputes. A number of other large cities established specialized housing courts as well during this time (Galowitz 1999). While New York's Housing Court hears disputes between landlords and tenants over a range of issues, by far the most common case is a claim filed by a landlord to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent. Annually, New York's Housing Court handles about 300,000 cases and issues nearly 100,000 warrants of eviction (Galowitz 1999). Although the vast majority of tenants in Housing Court appear in court pro se (that is, they represent themselves without an attorney), most landlords have lawyers. For example, one study found that 21 % of tenants in Housing Court were represented by a lawyer, whereas 78% of landlords were represented by a lawyer (Citywide Task Force on Housing Court [Task Force] 1986). …

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