NEWARK, NJ - The city has missed its April 1 deadline to start a new program that would give free legal representation to low-income residents who are facing eviction.
City council in December approved a measure that established the groundwork for the program. The final vote stalled for months after community groups raised concerns over the nuts and bolts of the program, including how it would be funded and structured.
Newark would be one of the first cities in the nation to create such a progressive program. New York City led the pack, establishing its own right to counsel program in 2017.
Mayor Ras Baraka has created a lot of hubbub about creating a similar program here in Newark. He touted it as recently as his state of the city address in March and held a press conference last year alongside New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing plans to create the operation.
But it’s struggling to get started.
The Office of Tenant Legal Services is not fully funded yet and bid requests for attorneys to work in the new office have not been put out, Newark's Corporation Counsel Kenyatta Stewart said.
“We expect for things to be up and running full force in the next two weeks,” Stewart told TAPinto Newark.
Implementing this operation would be a huge undertaking that requires several attorneys. 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.
The city announced that McCarter & English would dedicate one fellowship position to provide free legal services to low-income Newark residents who are facing eviction. The service is separate from the city's larger right-to-counsel program and will be headquartered at McCarter & English's office in Newark, not out of the city's Office of Tenant Legal Services.
The ordinance that was approved by city council in December required a new director of the program to "establish" the program no later than April 1. Stewart said the city has already hired its former Assistant Corporation Counsel Khabirah Myers for that position, but she hasn’t officially started yet.
Stewart said the city is funding a portion of the program, but he was unsure how much. The city is also hoping that law firms, nonprofits and private companies will donate money to fund the rest of the program.
“The city’s going to fund the program and of course we have a plan to sit down with some folks who have expressed interest in helping us with the funding,” said Stewart, later adding that he was unsure how much money was currently in the fund.
Several community groups worked with the city to establish the program, including the Ironbound Community Corporation, Essex Newark Legal Services and James Powell from Homes for All Newark.
Powell previously criticized the city's original plan in September to establish a right to counsel program, saying that it had been "copied and pasted" from New York City's legislation. Powell told TAPinto Newark Monday he was unsure of the Newark program’s status.
New York City's right to counsel program was expected to help about 400,000 residents at a cost of $155 million annually when it was first announced. Newark has about 270,000 residents, but only those who do not make more than 200 percent of the federal poverty line would qualify for free representation during eviction proceedings in Essex County Superior Court.
The program in New York City was expected to take five years to be fully implemented. Approximately 22,000 New Yorkers have already been represented by attorneys through the that city's Office of Civil Justice, according to one study.
Stewart, the city’s corporation counsel, said requests for quotations for attorneys to work in Newark's program will be sent out once Myers officially takes the helm of the city's Office of Tenant Legal Services.
“We’re excited about bringing on Ms. Myers and the fellow from McCarter,” Stewart said. “We’re excited about the fact that different funders who have expressed interest are ready to support the city. Most importantly there are residents that’ll have support and representation in landlord-tenant cases.”
This story was updated to clarify the role of McCarter & English's fellowship.