NEWARK, NJ - The city will open a new office to offer free legal advice to low-income residents facing eviction, but still needs to contract with a nonprofit group to begin providing attorneys in court at no cost to those who qualify.
The Office of Tenant Legal Services will open tomorrow, June 5, the city said. The program was supposed to be established by April 1, but the city struggled to find groups willing to contract with the city or provide services pro bono.
“We want to start now because every day we wait there’s a possible eviction for someone who needs help,” said Corporation Counsel Kenyatta Stewart.
The city announced on April 15 that the mayor appointed Khabirah Myers as coordinator of the program. Myers previously worked as the city's assistant corporation counsel and as an attorney for Essex-Newark Legal Services, where she represented low-income tenants. She also worked in the Peace Corp.
“Access to justice and decent housing is as much a human right as freedom and self-determination – and income should never be a determinant of who gets this access,” Myers previously said in a statement.
Myers will give advice to residents and connect them to the city’s contracted attorneys. She has already met with and given help to a few residents since being hired in April, the city said.
Her annual salary is $99,300, the city said.
The city plans to contract with Essex-Newark Legal Services to provide the legal representation in court. The nonprofit group will be awarded the contract worth $150,000 per city council approval after requests for proposals were put out, Stewart said.
There were about 17,000 evictions throughout Newark in 2016, according to Princeton University's Eviction Lab. That represents almost half of the 40,000 evictions throughout Essex County.
“In creating this office, we are working to strengthen our commitment to providing all Newark residents with quality affordable housing,” Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement. “We will not let abusive landlords have free reign to hound and harass tenants.”
Newark is the third municipality in the nation to create a so-called right to counsel program. New York City was the first in 2017 and has laid out very specific guidelines to qualify for the assistance. San Francisco was second.
The program across the Hudson River is expected to take five years to be fully implemented at a cost of $155 million annually. Newark has about 270,000 residents and only those who make no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty line would qualify.
Several groups helped the city craft the ordinance for the program. The final vote laying out the groundwork for the program stalled for months after the groups raised concerns over how the program would be funded and structured.
One of those groups involved in the program was Ironbound Community Corporation. ICC Environmental Justice and Community Development Director Maria Lopez-Nunez said she wasn't concerned the program would stall out and is keeping an eye on its implementation.
“There are thousands of cities in the United States and Newark is the third city that has started this,” Lopez-Nunez told TAPinto Newark. “I’m being patient and understand that this is a process."
McCarter & English, a law firm with offices in Newark, announced last year that it would hire one fellowship position to provide free legal services to low-income Newark residents facing eviction. The fellowship is separate from the city’s program.
The law firm hired Abdul Rehman Khan full-time for the position and he works out of McCarter & English’s offices. McCarter & English said it has represented tenants pro-bono for some years and will continue to do so with new programs, including in partnership with the city.
The city is still looking for law firms or groups to provide pro bono legal services and has office space in city hall for any attorneys that want to meet with residents.
Any groups that want to get involved are encouraged to contact the Office of Tenant Legal Services at 973-733-3675 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Residents may reach out to the office for additional information too.