Two of the city’s borough presidents are teaming up to help hundreds of low-income New Yorkers who have been dragged into eviction court proceedings without legal representation.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson say tenants being forced to represent themselves in Housing Court — due to the pandemic backlog of eviction cases that are overwhelming public defenders ― undermines the city’s “Right to Counsel” law.

Levine and Gibson wrote the original Right to Counsel bill while they served in the City Council. It first went into effect in 2017, and requires the city to provide tenants with free legal representation in Housing Court if their income falls beneath 200% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that translates to an annual income below $41,625.

Public defender groups tasked with providing free legal work have in recent months said they don’t have enough attorneys to go around. As a result, roughly 2,500 Right to Counsel-eligible defendants have faced eviction proceedings without lawyers since March, according to data shared with the Daily News by the state-run Office of Court Administration.

Levine and Gibson have a six-point plan for how they believe state and municipal agencies can help bring the city back into compliance with the law.

“We fought really hard to win this right for tenants and it’s just dismaying to see it undermined today,” Levine said.

“And the implications are real: When you remove the attorney and tell the tenant that they have to fend for themselves, the results are terrible,” the Manhattan borough president added, referencing city data showing that 86% of tenants who receive representation from the Right to Counsel program remain in their homes.

Most urgently, the Levine-Gibson plan calls on the Office of Court Administration to halt the “breakneck speed” with which it has been scheduling Housing Court cases since the state’s pandemic-related eviction moratorium expired Jan. 15.

In addition, if an eviction case proceeds against a Right to Counsel-eligible tenant, but public defender groups are unable to provide representation, the plan proposes the case be automatically paused until a lawyer can be assigned.

The blueprint also urges Mayor Adams’ Social Services Department to create a new Housing Court unit that would check whether tenants in eviction cases are eligible for a variety of grants and subsidies, like the FHEPS rent supplement, arguing such screenings would help relieve court caseloads as well.

The other elements of the plan urge the state to take a series of actions to help tenants, including expediting applications for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which covers arrears for people who have struggled to pay rent during the pandemic.

Lucian Chalfen, an Office of Court Administration spokesman, rejected the demand from Levine and Gibson to automatically freeze unrepresented eviction cases, saying that “would be prejudicial and illegal.” Chalfen also pushed back against the idea that courts are docketing an abnormal number of eviction cases and accused public defender groups of
passing the buck.

“We are obviously hearing more cases than in the middle of the pandemic with all its stays and restrictions, but what we are doing now is entirely normal,” he said. “The onus is on [the public defender groups] to propose some ideas, other than shift responsibility for their inability to hire attorneys and manage their offices.”

After New York’s eviction moratorium lapsed in January, landlords began flooding city Housing Court dockets, with more than 13,000 eviction lawsuits filed in February and March alone, according to the Office of Court Administration. That came on top of some 200,000 eviction lawsuits filed during the pandemic that were on ice during the moratorium.

Against that backdrop, Adriene Holder, chief civil practice attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said it’s irresponsible for the Office of Court Administration to revert to business as usual in housing courts.

The office “must limit the calendaring of housing cases, according to provider capacity, so all tenants facing eviction have legal representation,” said Holder, whose group provides free counsel for people facing eviction. “We hope that [the Office of Court Administration] will do right by these vulnerable New Yorkers, and we call on other stakeholders, including City Hall, to defend the ‘Right to Counsel’ initiative.”