John Whitlow –
New York City recently became the first jurisdiction in the United States to guarantee a right to counsel for poor people at risk of eviction. This was an important step in the fight for equal access to the courts, and a significant victory for tenant advocates who had waged a decades-long campaign to ensure fairness for people on the verge of losing their homes. I cut my teeth as a New York City tenant attorney in the early 2000s, when the right to counsel felt closer to a pipedream than a reality, and I can say unequivocally (and uncontroversially) that providing tenants with a lawyer when they enter the maw of housing court is a good thing. At the least, it will keep landlord attorneys and judges on their toes and reduce the stress and trauma tenants feel when navigating a byzantine system on their own. At the most, it will allow people to mount robust defenses and save their apartments, in the process preserving some of New York’s evaporating supply of affordable housing. But I can also say that it is not nearly enough to derail the hyper-gentrification that has been a through line of recent economic development policy and has its roots in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.
In the context of an over-heated housing market, the right to counsel should be viewed as a limited intervention that operates when eviction is imminent, i.e. after the structural sources of displacement have done their work. Failure to recognize the limits of the right to counsel – and of access to justice paradigms more generally – naturalizes those structural sources and legitimates as normal the widening inequalities produced by our current political-economic and social order. Challenging inequality and displacement in a deep and lasting way requires moving beyond access to justice and critically engaging the core tenets of market-driven urbanization.