Pro Bono News

A Right to Counsel is a Right to a Fighting Chance

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

A Right to Counsel is a Right to a Fighting Chance

"When it comes to evictions, tenants are set up to fail. In eviction lawsuits nationwide, an estimated 90 percent of landlords have legal representation, while only 10 percent of tenants do. Without representation, the majority of tenants lose their cases and are ultimately evicted. This can have devastating consequences for individuals, communities, and the availability of affordable rental homes more broadly—especially as the share of families renting homes in the United States grows and the supply of affordable rental housing becomes increasingly limited.

Between 2001 and 2015, the supply of affordable rental homes did not keep pace with growth in the percentage of U.S. families that rent their homes. Additionally, each year during this time period, gross rents increased an average of 3 percent yearly, while incomes declined 0.1 percent on average. This shortage of affordable rental homes disproportionately affects communities of color and other marginalized groups; Native American, Black, Hispanic, disabled, and LGBTQ renters are all more likely to have extremely low incomes or to live in poverty than other renters.

This combination of limited housing supply, rising rents, and shrinking incomes has resulted in renter households spending more and more of their income on housing costs. In 2016, nearly half of the country’s 43 million renter households—more than 20 million households—spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent; 11 million of these households spent more than half of their income on rent. Meanwhile, fewer than 1 in 4 eligible low-income renter households receive federal rental assistance. The burden of such high housing cost, along with the lack of financial assistance, make it hard for these renters to afford basic necessities such as food, transportation, and medical care. Reflecting these harsh realities, recent public opinion polling shows that rental housing affordability is a growing concern nationwide—not only in large cities and suburbs but also in small towns and rural areas.

On top of the dire shortage of affordable rental homes, the rising number of evictions has only exacerbated tenants’ housing issues. In 2016, landlords in the United states filed an estimated 2.3 million evictions against tenants—an average of four evictions per minute. Nearly 900,000 of these filings resulted in an actual eviction, leading to more than 2.3 million people being displaced from their homes that year. Like the shortage of affordable homes, evictions also disproportionately harm marginalized communities. Sociologist Matthew Desmond, founder of Eviction Lab, the first national database on evictions, compared one city’s high rate of eviction for Black women with its overincarceration of Black men: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

This issue brief explains the growing problem of evictions nationwide. It also emphasizes the importance of guaranteeing tenants legal counsel—known as a right to counsel—in efforts to mitigate this issue. It also explores how several localities are countering the problem by providing this right for tenants in eviction proceedings. A right to counsel has been proven to help tenants win eviction cases and stay in their homes, and it can soften the blow when eviction is unavoidable. In addition to significant benefits for individuals and families who rent their homes, this right benefits communities by preventing homelessness and preserving affordable rental homes all while saving as much as hundreds of millions of government dollars per year..."

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