Is Tenants' Right to Counsel On Its Way to Becoming Standard Practice?

Is Tenants' Right to Counsel On Its Way to Becoming Standard Practice?

"Two years after New York became the first city in the United States to guarantee legal representation for every tenant facing eviction, four more cities have followed suit, and a bill has been introduced to Congress that would help provide lawyers in even more cities.

This fall, lawmakers in Cleveland and then Philadelphia passed their own versions of a “right to counsel” law for tenants. Previously, voters in San Francisco had approved a right to counsel law via ballot referendum in 2018, and Newark’s City Council approved legislation late last year as well. The laws are meant to correct a common in balance in landlord-tenant courts, where the vast majority of landlords benefit from legal representation while tenants are often left on their own to figure out what rights they have in trying to avoid being evicted. Research has shown that tenants usually lose their cases when they are unrepresented, but stand better chances when they have lawyers on their side. Research has also shown that eviction is a deeply disruptive and destructive event in a tenant’s life that, in the words of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, “is not just a condition of poverty, it is a cause of it.”

“The problems are the same everywhere,” says John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel and a staff attorney with the Public Justice Center. “The eviction mill problem, the unfairness of the results, and most importantly the dire circumstances people face … You can lose virtually everything if you lose your house: Your kids, your job, you could wind up in jail. It just keeps going.”

The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel advocates for free legal representation, like the kind federally guaranteed to defendants in criminal cases, in a range of civil cases — not just housing. But lately, as research has clarified the breadth of the eviction crisis in American cities and the depth of harm to tenants who experience it, the movement for a right to counsel for tenants has picked up momentum, Pollock says.

“Five cities in three years is nothing short of miraculous, when you consider there wasn’t a single one before New York,” Pollock says. “What we’re talking about now is not just isolated incidents — this is a movement.”

In December, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a bill called the Eviction Prevention Act, which would authorize $125 million in grants to cities and states to pay for eviction-court representation for tenants who earn under 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Under the legislation, which was introduced with six co-sponsors from around the country, jurisdictions that have approved a right to counsel would have priority for funding.

“As rents skyrocket and incomes flatline, the affordable housing crisis has become an eviction crisis,” DeLauro said in a press release. “Working people and their families deserve a safety net that can help keep them in their home, and that is exactly what the Eviction Prevention Act aims to do.”

Each city has adopted a somewhat different version of the law. And the process of moving from the advocacy stage to establishing a legal right has varied as well. In Philadelphia, two city council members held a hearing on the eviction crisis in March of 2017 and, helped secure $500,000 in the city budget to pay for legal representation for some tenants. The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project gave tenants some legal self-help services and helped build the case for expanding free legal representation. Last year, the Philadelphia Bar Association sponsored a study which suggested that guaranteeing a right to counsel for all tenants would cost $3.5 million a year, but save the city $45.2 million in related spending on homelessness, education, and courts, as Next City reported. Eventually the city council passed a bill that covers legal representation for any tenant facing eviction who earns less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Almost a quarter of Philadelphia’s residents live below the poverty line. In 2016, landlords filed to evict tenants more than 22,000 times, according to a city task force on eviction..."

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  • Housing