Westchester County Executive Latimer Signs ‘Access to Counsel’ Bill into Law

Westchester County Executive Latimer Signs ‘Access to Counsel’ Bill into Law
Westchester County Executive George Latimer signs the “Access to Counsel” bill into law flanked by county legislators and housing advocates.

WHITE PLAINS—At a press conference on May 31, Westchester County Executive George Latimer signed legislation into law that will create an agency that will provide legal counsel to income-eligible tenants and occupants facing eviction or other housing-related matters. A housing advocacy organization stated that 93% of landlords are represented by counsel in eviction proceedings in Westchester County, while only 7% of tenants have legal representation.

The new law creates the Office of Housing Counsel located within the Department of Social Services for the establishment of a county-wide program to provide access to legal services for a person whose household income is at or below 300% of the federal poverty guidelines or 60% of the county Average Medium Income who has legal standing in a covered proceeding.

A covered proceeding is defined by the county as any proceeding in any court in the county or any administrative agency administering housing programs which involves: the eviction of a covered individual; challenges to rent increases based upon a landlord’s failure to provide proper notice; maintaining or restoring a covered individual’s occupancy of a residential rental premises; possession of a residential premises for the non-payment of rent or a holdover; restoration or maintenance of essential services and a proceeding which would result in the termination of tenancy, rental subsidy, or other rental assistance.

“Housing is a necessity. Plain and simple,” Westchester County Executive Latimer said. “This legislation will help Westchester residents who are facing hardships remain in their homes, easing the burden on our social services and lowering the number of our neighbors facing a crisis in their living situations. I commend the Board of Legislators for their work on this trailblazing legislation here in Westchester.”

The legal services provided to covered individuals will be at no cost to the clients. Additionally, community engagement and education to inform tenants of their ability to access legal counsel will be undertaken to help residents learn about this important program, county officials stated.

According to the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, New York State has the highest rate of homelessness in the country, with 92,000 New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. Even worse, in a 2016 report by Stout Risius Ross, a staggering 1.2 million households are behind on rent and landlords are actively trying to evict more than 236,000 tenants statewide. According to the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, 220,000 evictions are pending in New York courts, including town, village, and justice courts.

Currently, low-income tenants in Westchester County do not have guaranteed access to legal counsel in eviction proceedings. Across the state an overwhelming majority of landlords are represented during eviction proceedings, whereas most tenants are not. According to the Westchester County Right to Counsel Coalition, in normal years, when more than 10,000 eviction proceedings are filed in Westchester County Courts, 93% of landlords are represented by counsel, while only 7% of tenants have attorneys. Programs that provide legal counsel at no cost to low-income tenants, have proven to be very successful at preventing evictions and protecting tenants’ rights

The bill reached the County Executive’s desk after being unanimously passed by the Westchester County Board of Legislators.

Board of Legislators Chairman Vedat Gashi said, “At the Board of Legislators, we are always looking for ways to improve the lives of the residents of Westchester. This legislation does just that. I thank my colleagues on the Board for their diligent work, the County Executive and his staff for their efforts to bring this to fruition and I look forward to working with the dedicated County staff on its implementation.”

Legislator Catherine Borgia said, “This law sets a gold standard for access to housing counsel. Once the office is in operation, tenants will have access to brief legal representation or full legal representation on a host of housing matters, including eviction proceedings, landlord’s failure to provide proper notice of rent increase, maintaining or restoring essential services to the tenant, among others. Even before the pandemic, it was obvious that housing costs were too high, causing economic strain for Westchester families and harming local economies. In 2019, I spent time in several local courts and I saw how unrepresented tenants were outmatched in court. The end of the pandemic-era eviction moratorium has created a huge jump in eviction proceedings, increasing risk of homelessness for families already struggling with high costs.”

Legal Services of the Hudson Valley CEO Rachel Chazin Halperin, Esq. added, “This monumental legislation puts Westchester in a small but growing category of progressive jurisdictions across the country that recognizes providing counsel to tenants effectively prevents homelessness. We are grateful to the thoughtful and bold leadership of the County Executive and Board of Legislators for passing and signing this bill and look forward to working collaboratively with them in its implementation. As the only provider of comprehensive civil legal services to low-income residents in Westchester County, the majority of our cases involve housing instability. Now with this legislation, tenants will have the benefit of counsel to assert their legal rights when the basic human right of housing is in jeopardy.”

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