No lawyers left to represent low-income Manhattan, Brooklyn tenants facing eviction

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The Legal Aid Society is expected Monday to tell court administrators it can’t take 130 cases in Manhattan and 100 in Brooklyn this month. Another group, Legal Services NYC, can’t take any more cases in Brooklyn.

The overwhelmed firms have already started rejecting hundreds of cases in Queens and the Bronx.

More than 220,000 pending eviction cases are bottlenecked in housing courts, according to state Office of Court Administration data. More than 7,000 were filed in March, up from about 6,000 in February.

The public defender firms have urged Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to make courts add cases to the calendar at a slower rate. But agency spokesman Lucian Chalfen said administrators believe the issue is the fault of defender services “incapable” of carrying out their work.

Chalfen said adjourning cases “only serves to slow down the process” for tenants and landlords.

In 2017, the city passed legislation ensuring poor tenants the same right to representation as criminal defendants. The rollout was going to plan — until the pandemic hit.

With no lawyers to represent them, thousands will be forced to fight their own often complex eviction cases.

Queens biology student Minsoo Choo is fighting to keep his family in their home.

The 23-year-old’s father was laid off from his home care and food delivery jobs at the start of the pandemic; his mother was battling cancer.

“My mother, she couldn’t work because she was going through chemotherapy at the time. That was particularly hard because we kind of needed both parents to be working,” Choo said. “Then the situation got out of hand.”

Choo appeared Wednesday in Queens Housing Court, where the family’s landlord is suing for back rent and trying to get them booted from their Flushing home. The landlord’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.

At the appearance, court lawyer Patricia Romano asked if they were interested in a free lawyer and adjourned their case to May 4. But legal providers say the growing caseload makes it increasingly unlikely they’ll be able to take new cases in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx by next month.

Legal Aid lawyer Julia McNally overheard Choo discussing his case and applying for New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Because McNally knew anyone with a pending ERAP application has a right to have their case put on hold, she took Choo back to the courtroom and got the case put on ice.

Had McNally not intervened, Choo’s family would have left the courthouse none the wiser.

“It’s really, really common for people to not understand what their cases are about,” said McNally.

“They have a statutory right that was just going totally unenforced because there’s no lawyer here and because the court is overwhelmed with this volume of cases.”

The process has taken its toll on Choo.

“My fear — there’s obviously the fear of eviction, but I think a lot of it is just trying to survive,” said Choo.

“I have hopes for the future, but there’s always that underlying feeling of dread, that… there’s nothing left in the future.”

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