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Right to Counsel: The Nationwide Movement to Fight the Eviction Crisis


Posted November 6, 2019
3:40 pm


Written by Neil Steinkamp at Stout.com on 10/14/2019

Tenant organizers, legislators, and attorneys are pushing for a right to appointed counsel for renters in eviction cases. New York, San Francisco, and Newark have recently enacted such laws, and many other states and municipalities are looking to follow suit. Advocates throughout the country offered their insights on the benefits of a right to counsel and the actions they have taken to advance their goals.

Overview

Across the United States, in cities and states big and small, residents in alarming numbers face the trauma, disruption, and other harms associated with eviction each year. Many more tenants experience forced moveouts, landlord abuse, discrimination, intimidation, and other circumstances that result in displacement without the formality of an eviction filing. While the rate and volume of evictions varies by locality, the potential negative effects on evicted tenants are consistent, such as homelessness, unemployment, loss of child custody, and disruption to child education.

Low-income tenants, many of whom are disproportionately people of color, women, and single-parent families, nearly always lack legal representation through the eviction process – a high-stakes, complex process where, on average, the landlord has legal representation 90% of the time, but tenants have representation less than 10% of the time. Without assistance navigating complex court rules, legal processes, and settlement discussions, poor tenants are denied justice due to an imbalance of power for which they bear the risks of life-changing trauma and disruption for themselves and their families. That is, those who are most vulnerable face the greatest risks with the least assistance.

For decades, tenant organizers, non-profit organizations, bar associations, and others have sought to improve tenants’ standing in eviction matters. Often, their goals have been to obtain formal legal protections for tenants facing eviction as well as the necessary additional funding for programs to provide legal representation to those in need, to some success. In recent years, there has been a push not just for more funding for counsel in eviction matters, but for a recognized legal right to counsel (RTC). These efforts are starting to bear fruit. New York City became the first municipality in the U.S. to implement RTC in eviction matters in 2017. The landmark legislation is changing how the city’s housing court system operates, and residents facing eviction now have legal protection to resolve any issues prior to trial or, should a case go to trial, guide them through matters in front of a judge and opposing counsel.

In addition to New York, San Francisco, Newark, and Cleveland have enacted RTC laws, and many other large cities, such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles, are closer to making RTC a reality. While the process has taken some time, the broader movement has gained momentum nationwide.

Stout has been closely involved with many of these initiatives. Notably, local bar associations commissioned Stout’s groundbreaking New York and subsequent Philadelphia cost-benefit analysis studies, which revealed the significant cost-savings these cities could realize by guaranteeing RTC in eviction matters. Stout is now working with coalitions, organizations, and bar associations throughout the U.S. on similar studies, analyses, and initiatives.

We recently spoke with tenants’ rights organizers, legal aid organizations, and bar associations from around the country to hear their first-hand accounts of local efforts as well as the national importance of RTC in general. A common theme is that RTC is not just a benefit for court matters; it is a civil right that empowers tenants.

Why a Right to Counsel

JOHN POLLOCK

  • Coordinator – National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC)
  • Attorney – Public Justice Center

ANDREW SCHERER

  • Policy Director – Impact Center for Public Interest Law, New York Law School
  • Director – RTC Project, Impact Center for Public Interest Law, New York Law School

The movement for RTC expands well beyond eviction matters. It is applicable to other cases implicating basic human needs, such as child custody, domestic violence, and mental health, and ensures more equality in the legal system, says John Pollock.

“In criminal cases, it is understood that incarceration is too severe a consequence to ever risk imposing it incorrectly, and, thus, the appointment of counsel is necessary for every case in order to mitigate this risk,” he says. “The same is true of basic human needs civil proceedings involving such critical matters as housing, healthcare, physical liberty, or safety. The consequences of these proceedings are no less dire than criminal incarceration and require the presence of counsel to ensure that these basic needs are protected.”

Pollock addressed why a categorical “right” to counsel is essential in certain kinds of civil cases, rather than simply aiming for increased appropriations of legal services funding or limiting appointment of counsel to the case with the most obvious merit.

“A funding allocation, when not backed by a right established by statute or court decision, is easily reduced or eliminated altogether during a complex and mostly invisible budget appropriations process,” he says. “Conversely, RTC established by statute or ordinance would have to be separately repealed or amended in a process that typically has public hearings, and threats to such a statute are more easily identified and gain organizational support.

“Furthermore, even in cases seemingly lacking meritorious defenses, [with RTC] there are many strategies attorneys can pursue to mitigate the harm for their clients,” he says. For instance, attorneys can obtain extra time for a tenant to move (thus reducing the risk of homelessness) or prevent an eviction from being formally entered (which increases the housing options available to the tenant). “Given the seriousness of the consequences of eviction that are routinely visited upon tenants, it’s necessary to do everything possible to mitigate that harm.”

Moreover, while expanded funding can go a long way, an established RTC law can go further for poor individuals and people of color who are often vulnerable to eviction proceedings. Andrew Scherer saw this in the runup to New York’s legislation and touted the benefits of a legal right versus more financial bandwidth.

“Increased funding for a benefit cannot bring about the shift in power dynamics, the change in the ecology of the court, and the security and sense of well-being that would be generated by establishing RTC,” he says. “Increased funding does not treat people as equals and does not convey the message of dignity and respect that is so sorely needed in low-income communities.”

Scherer says that it is that enforceability of a remedy in a court of justice for violation of a right, that enables a rightholder to derive power from a right, and what distinguishes it from a privilege or a benefit. Therefore, even though providing more funding to expand access to counsel delivers an important benefit, it does not guarantee a right or an entitlement. Thus, RTC is critical for adequate legal representation. Although RTC does not eliminate evictions, Scherer says, it helps reduce them significantly and create a buffer for tenants between having and not having a home.

Providing RTC also likely has an effect on system actors, says Pollock. “When landlords know that low-income tenants are highly unlikely to have counsel, they are more emboldened to file frivolous cases. But when these same actors know for certain that the defendants will be represented by counsel, they likely will not file these types of cases in the first place and are incentivized to work out the issue with the defendants in a less adversarial manner.

“Systemic representation greatly increases the odds that legal services programs will be able to identify repeating legal issues across swaths of litigants, which can then lead to reform of the substantive law.”

Pollock also points out that while lawyers can be extremely effective at protecting tenants in a variety of ways even where the landlord/tenant law is weak, the effectiveness of RTC increases significantly if substantive law reform is paired with pursuit of RTC. “Thus, it is not uncommon to see campaigns for landlord licensing, rent control, or just cause evictions accompany RTC campaigns,” he says.

National

SUSANNA BLANKLEY

  • Coalition Coordinator – Right to Counsel NYC (RTCNYC) Coalition

The case for systematic representation has been accelerating across the U.S. While there had been many administrative and legal efforts led by advocates and lawyers before, there had never been a tenant-centered, grassroots-led organizing campaign demanding full RTC. The movement and legislation in New York helped to lay the groundwork for similar action in other parts of the country.

Susanna Blankley notes that the growing RTC advocacy has required – and created – a change in public mindset. “In New York, many people told us that winning [RTC legislation] wasn’t possible, that full RTC was a pipe dream, that many people had worked on it and we’d never win,” she says.

Throughout its campaign (as discussed later in the New York section), the RTCNYC Coalition experienced much pressure to accept increased funding for counsel rather than full RTC. But Blankley says that the campaign was led by tenants who had faced eviction and who saw RTC not as being simply about access to justice, but about power. The Coalition saw that fighting for a full right was its only choice. The efforts paid off.

After New York passed its legislation, other groups around the country have been inspired to launch or re-launch their efforts. Advocates in San Francisco formed a coalition that led a successful ballot initiative making San Francisco the second city in the country with an RTC law. Just months later, a coalition in Newark formed in response to apparent subpar legislation introduced by the city’s mayor. The coalition ran a campaign to turn an unfunded pro bono lawyer initiative into full RTC legislation. Thus, in just one year, three large U.S. cities won grassroots organizing campaigns establishing RTC. “This kind of momentum is both unprecedented and inspiring,” Blankley says.

Currently, active campaigns and coalitions coast to coast are bringing together organizers, tenant leaders, academics, lawyers, advocates, and others to advance legislation for RTC. In addition, more than a dozen other cities or regions are working on various pilot, legislative, legal, and funding efforts, or are building the infrastructure necessary to form RTC coalitions. In an effort to support the nationwide efforts, the RTCNYC Coalition created an online campaign toolkit that documents how organizers in New York won their campaign and offers templates for groups in other cities. Many political leaders and candidates have also incorporated RTC into their housing platforms, including a U.S. House proposal for the creation of a $6.5 billion-per-year grant program to fund state and local RTC efforts.

In addition, numerous organizations have commissioned comprehensive research on the financial and social benefits of RTC. “Given that most of these initiatives and efforts to win RTC are unfunded, like New York’s campaign was, this is impressive,” Blankley says.

New York

SUSANNA BLANKLEY

  • Coalition Coordinator – Right to Counsel NYC (RTCNYC) Coalition

RANDY DILLARD

  • Tenant Leader – Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA)

JUDITH GOLDINER

  • Attorney in Charge – Civil Law Reform Unit, The Legal Aid Society (New York)

When New York City enacted its RTC legislation in 2017, it was the culmination of decades of hard work on the part of tenants, organizers, and other RTC advocates. Yet efforts really began to ramp up in the early 2010s when tenant organizing groups in the Bronx and Brooklyn launched tenant-led campaigns to reform Housing Court amid high eviction rates and a lack of justice for tenants. In response to pressure from the tenant movement, in 2014, the city council expanded funding for access to counsel in eviction matters and also introduced the bill for the creation of RTC. At the same time, tenant groups, legal services providers, and many other housing rights advocates throughout the city joined to create the RTCNYC Coalition to develop a grassroots citywide movement, with the objective of having city council pass the RTC bill. For three years, the Coalition ardently took on numerous actions to advance its goal, including working with city legislators, mobilizing town halls, canvassing tens of thousands of residents, and regularly engaging with the press, culminating with the passage of the bill in August 2017.

Throughout the process, the Coalition’s work has been led by tenants and organizers, like Randy Dillard, tenant leader from CASA, who had spent two-and-a-half years battling an eviction case over rent he did not owe. “I got involved in fighting for RTC because of the experience I went through in Housing Court,” Dillard said. “After meeting a lot of tenants at CASA, I realized that it wasn’t just affecting me. Seeing other tenants going through the same thing, and seeing the impact it has on families and children, that’s what made me do the work.”

New York City’s RTC legislation has income-eligibility requirements – households with incomes at or below 200% of the poverty line, which is about $23,000 for a single person and about $49,000 for a family of four. (A current proposal in city council calls for expanding eligibility to 400% of the poverty line.) The law is also being implemented by ZIP code through a five-year phase-in period to ensure legal services providers have enough time to hire and train addition personnel. By 2022, all eligible tenants throughout the city will have representation. Tenants who do not meet the income thresholds or live in the ZIP codes that temporarily do not have RTC can obtain representation through other legal services programs.

As in many cities, Housing Court in New York is historically notorious for being a difficult, hostile environment in which tenants fight their cases without legal help, and where the so-called transaction cost for those unrepresented tenants in lost wages, child-care costs, stress, and anxiety are exceedingly high. According to New York University’s Furman Center, before 2014, only 1% of New York City tenants were represented by an attorney, while nearly every landlord was represented by an attorney. And unlike landlords, most of the Legal Aid Society’s clients have virtually no access to private legal counsel because they simply cannot afford it.

Judith Goldiner has witnessed such situations first-hand as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. “When tenants forgo legal representation from lack of money or fear of their landlord, they are conceding to a fight they may have had a real chance of winning,” she says. “In practice, pro se low-income tenants served with court papers are only a step away from losing their homes and suffering costly displacement and potential homelessness. For low-income tenants, moving apartments is not only expensive and nearly impossible – it comes at an irreplaceable loss of well-being, personal property, job security, and established communities and support systems.”

RTC offers tenants a pathway to justice in the courtroom, Goldiner says. “In many ways, RTC is about equal access to the law, whether you’re a wealthy landlord or poverty-facing tenant. Without RTC, low-income tenants’ rights to defend their tenancy ends where it should begin – at the issuance of papers to appear in court.”

Dillard agrees and reflects on his experiences informing tenants about RTC in the Bronx courthouse. “I was talking to tenants and telling them they had this right,” he recalls. “You should have seen the surprise on their faces. To know that you got help, it’s a different feeling. It’s like going into a dark room and suddenly finding out where the light switch is. People are so relieved when they learn about it.”

With RTC legislation in the books, Goldiner also has already noticed the changes. “In the courtroom, we are seeing much more extensive litigation,” she says. “Landlord attorneys can no longer count on the likelihood that the extent of their job will be serving a tenant with court papers and filing the proceedings in Housing Court – or coercing tenants into an unfavorable and informal settlement.”

The Coalition has also observed changes, such as landlords filing fewer eviction cases. But even with a decline in case filings, the full phase-in of the law is no small task. Since the passage of the RTC bill, the Coalition has shifted its efforts to a successful rollout of RTC with its Campaign for Just Implementation. This campaign includes several working groups with specific goals, such as ensuring that RTC is adequately implemented in the Housing Court system, that attorneys are trained and advocate for RTC, and that tenants facing eviction obtain RTC. The Coalition also is seeking new legislation to expand RTC eligibility and ensure education and outreach.

“We have to organize around implementation,” Blankley says. “How we win is as important as what we win.”

Philadelphia

CATHY CARR

  • Former Executive Director – Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
  • Co-Chair – Civil Gideon Task Force, Philadelphia Bar Association

ETHAN FOGEL

  • Partner – Dechert LLP
  • Member – Civil Gideon Task Force, Philadelphia Bar Association

In Philadelphia, efforts for RTC legislation also accelerated in recent years. Although the legislation that has been introduced has not yet been signed into law, it may become a reality in the near future. Furthermore, earlier this year a bill was introduced in Philadelphia’s city council to create a new low-income tenant legal defense fund to ensure tenants have representation, with the goal of expanding the fund to cover all such tenants in need.

Cathy Carr notes that the Philadelphia Bar Association formed a Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel 10 years ago amid the budget cuts for legal aid and heightened focus on mortgage foreclosures during the 2008-09 financial crisis, forcing tenant-landlord issues into the rear view. Thus, only a small percentage of Philadelphia tenants facing eviction received legal representation.

Carr says the Task Force quickly turned its efforts to addressing the lack of representation in two of Philadelphia’s most active courts: Family Court and Landlord Tenant Court. “The Task Force was an unusual alliance of bar and judicial leaders who collaboratively set out first to improve access to information and advice in these courts, starting with help desks for unrepresented litigants,” she says. Despite limited funding, Carr says there was “great resolve to take first steps toward a long-term goal of RTC for tenants.”

Those first steps have led to real change, according to Carr and Ethan Fogel. In the past three years, the work of the Task Force and other leaders and supporters has resulted in the city creating the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP), a pilot program – that was later made permanent – to provide legal assistance to low-income tenants. Carr points out that this program does not guarantee every tenant counsel, but it does provide assistance of some sort to every tenant through access to information, legal advice, and financial counseling. Access to full representation has been expanded but is not available to every tenant. “The work to build the program continues,” she says. “A mayor’s Task Force [known as the Eviction Prevention Steering Committee] is working on a variety of issues of importance to tenants, and bills have been introduced in city council to provide RTC and the tenant defense fund. More funding for tenant legal assistance looks likely.

“Of critical importance has been the interest and support of city council members and the mayor’s office. As in New York, Philadelphia’s city council held hearings on the need for tenant representation, and the mayor has seen the provision of legal counsel to tenants as part of the city’s anti-poverty work.”

However, Carr notes the differences of activity between Philadelphia and New York. “Philadelphia’s budget is tiny compared with New York’s,” she says. “And Philadelphia struggles more with funding to address poverty and housing problems. Accepting this has meant that advocates have settled for less than full RTC, at least as a first step.”

But as in much of the U.S., homeownership in Philadelphia overall has been dropping in recent years, notably since the 2008 financial crisis. “A smaller percentage of non-white Philadelphians own their homes than 20 to 30 years ago, and studies show that more low-income tenants are living in rental housing rather than their own homes,” Carr says. “This of course makes the impact of evictions more significant and arguably the role of tenants’ organizations even more critical.”

Philadelphia renters have continued to struggle with stagnant wages and a lack of affordable housing, says Fogel. The city has the highest poverty and “deep poverty” rates of the 10 largest U.S. cities, with 26% of its population living below the federal poverty level and nearly half of its poor residents living in “deep poverty,” below 50% of the poverty level. Philadelphia’s rate of eviction, at 3.48%, is about 150% of the national eviction rate, according to the Eviction Lab. “There were 22,125 residential, non-commercial landlord-tenant cases filed in Municipal Court in 2016,” says Fogel. “In that same year, nearly 81% of landlords were represented by counsel, but only 7% of tenants were represented by counsel.”

Organizers in Philadelphia have long recognized the need for more tenants’ rights in the city. Carr says that Task Force members, legal services providers, city council representatives, and tenant organizers all met with tenant groups from New York. “They were made particularly aware of the role that tenants play in assuring that the counsel provided are excellent and aggressive and properly funded, so as to avoid the problems that exist with under-paid and over-committed court-appointed counsel in many criminal and civil courtrooms around the country,” she says.

While the movement continues to grow in Philadelphia, the aggregation of the efforts, so far, bodes well for low-income tenants regarding more legal protections. “The ongoing work has already yielded significant tangible results,” says Fogel. “The question is no longer whether eviction legal defense will be funded, but rather how eviction legal defense will be implemented.”

Detroit

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE DETROIT COALITION FOR RIGHT TO COUNSEL

ASHLEY LOWE

  • CEO – Lakeshore Legal Aid

HEIDI NAASKO

  • Pro Bono Counsel – Dykema Gossett PLLC

TONYA PHILLIPS

  • Staff Attorney – Michigan Legal Program

CHARLENE SNOW

  • Legal Director – United Community Housing Coalition

Like Philadelphia, Detroit also has a significantly high volume of evictions. A Detroit News investigation found that in the past decade one in five tenants have faced evictions each year. Stout research found that in 2017, of the more than 30,000 eviction cases filed in the city’s Eviction Court (commonly known as the 36th District Court), only 3%-5% of tenants with eviction cases had legal representation. In addition, 75% of cases without tenant representation are likely to result in significant risk of disruptive displacement (e.g. homelessness) to the tenant. However, with representation, disruptive displacement to the tenant was mitigated or avoided in more than 90% of cases.

Recognizing tenants’ growing need for legal assistance, the Detroit Coalition for Right to Counsel – comprising community leaders, attorneys, and housing rights advocates – has been broadening its efforts for several years and making inroads. Two of Detroit’s longest established legal services providers – United Community Housing Coalition and Michigan Legal Services – opened the Eviction Defense Housing Clinic in 2015 to provide for legal representation for tenants facing imminent eviction. The clinic is on-site at the 36th District Court and started with three mornings per week. Shortly thereafter, with the assistance of the court, an eviction-diversion program commenced and operates twice per month at the clinic. The clinic has now expanded to three partial days and one full day per week in partnership with Lakeshore Legal Aid.

Building on the momentum of the clinic and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s public statements on ending homelessness, lawyers from publicly funded legal-aid agencies, law firms, and Ford Motor Company convened a Detroit Eviction Right to Counsel Summit in March 2019. The summit attracted local and national advocates, including corporations, foundations, tenants, Eviction Court judges, and representatives from city government, and addressed Detroit’s eviction crisis and the dire state of the city’s eviction courts.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court stated at the summit: “Building a better eviction defense system means better outcomes, which, in turn, increase public confidence our system of justice.” She concluded her remarks by saying: “Detroit is exactly the right place for some big ideas on this issue. I think Detroit’s comeback should feature the most innovative, most robust access-to-justice program in the country. A strong access-to-justice delivery system, one that supports families and communities in crisis, one that connects people with the services they need to take care of themselves and their families, will be what really sets Detroit apart.”

Shortly after the summit, the Detroit city council introduced an RTC ordinance. Since then, the Detroit Coalition has met with several organizations and legislative parties, including the city council and the Michigan State Planning Body for Legal Services, to advocate for legal aid and the passage of the ordinance.

As progress continues toward RTC in Detroit, additional steps will be necessary to fully assist tenants. For example, more full-time lawyers and other professionals will be needed to respond to every tenant who meets the assistance requirements, and also to provide housing counseling and placement ensuring that all tenants have fair leases and adequate housing. Furthermore, increased enforcement of current building and safety code regulations to ensure habitability of the housing stock will be essential.

The Detroit Coalition believes RTC is a cost-effective way to combat homelessness as the city considers the cost to stabilize evicted families and stave off the related negative impacts to Detroit neighborhoods and communities.

Cleveland

ABIGAIL STAUDT

  • Managing Attorney – Legal Aid Society (Cleveland)

HAZEL REMESCH

  • Supervising Attorney – Legal Aid Society (Cleveland)

Many cities have at least one strong tenants’ rights organization. Since the Cleveland Tenants Organization dissolved in early 2018, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland has taken up the charge of coalition-building and elevating the voices of tenants.

“Just looking at the data, we can see the stark differences in outcomes for tenants who do have representation and those who do not,” says Abigail Staudt.

With an invitation from Cleveland’s city council, Staudt and her colleague, Hazel Remesch, worked to create an RTC law for Cleveland-area tenants facing eviction This would undoubtedly have a sweeping impact on outcomes in Cleveland housing court, where approximately 9,000 evictions are filed every year. Only 1%-2% of tenants facing eviction are represented by an attorney. Conversely, most landlords have legal representation.

Legal Aid’s perspective provides critical guidance for Cleveland’s RTC

initiative. “As the service provider of civil legal representation in this area, we have first-hand experience about the barriers that tenants face,” says Remesch. “We also know the rights that tenants do have and can advocate for them to be protected.”

Remesch and Staudt stress that the importance of community engagement cannot be understated. Their approach focuses on building partnerships and finding common ground. Local partners include the city, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, the courts, Cuyahoga County, and the Cleveland Academy of Trial Attorneys. The Legal Aid Society also implemented a robust community education program to engage other local stakeholders.

“Research from studies across the country has shown that an investment in RTC is an investment in the community,” says Remesch. “We are spreading the message that RTC will support the work focused on improving our communities – the health clinics, schools, and workforce-training programs, for example – because they are all connected.”

For instance, children’s educational achievement is negatively impacted when they must change schools even one time in one school year due to evictions.

“Alone, RTC will not solve every problem facing low-income tenants in Cleveland,” Staudt says. “Multiple mechanisms for protection are needed.”

Examples of other protections include sealing eviction records and enacting source-of-income protections, which would prohibit landlords from denying would-be tenants because they have a government-issued housing voucher or are on disability.

“All existing tenant protections are easier to enforce when there is RTC because tenants may not know about their rights or feel ill-equipped to advocate for themselves,” says Remesch. “Thus, RTC is a fundamental component of a broader set of tenant protections.”

On September 30, 2019, Cleveland’s city council passed legislation to provide RTC for tenants at or below 100% of the federal poverty guidelines and who have at least one child.

Los Angeles

JOE DONLIN

  • Associate Director/Director of Equitable Development – Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE)

While many tenants across the country may not be aware of any protections available to them, outsiders may not be aware of tenants’ potential hardships. “Tenant organizers and legal service providers in Los Angeles were long aware of a few critical facts that were not common knowledge outside of the tenants’ rights world,” says Joe Donlin. These facts include tens of thousands of evictions that were often avoidable or taking place outside of the formal eviction process. The frequency of such evictions would be reduced with RTC.

In Los Angeles, the housing justice movement has called for RTC, especially for low-income minority tenants, for years. Donlin says that the City and County of Los Angeles began paying attention to this call shortly after the successful campaigns in New York and San Francisco. “About a year ago, city council member Paul Koretz saw these examples elsewhere and suggested Los Angeles consider doing the same,” Donlin recalls. “When local tenant leaders and advocates stepped forward amid this renewed interest, their local, on-the-ground expertise became critical to developing a unique model for RTC that is being considered by elected officials.”

Los Angeles’ RTC coalition proposed an RTC model containing three pillars: 1) eviction-prevention services, 2) emergency rental assistance, and 3) a guaranteed right to legal representation for low-income tenants facing an eviction. Donlin says that, based on its daily experience of supporting tenants, the coalition understands that far fewer tenants would be displaced and enter homelessness if this comprehensive approach were implemented. In addition to the legal representation in this three-pillar model, tenants’ rights education and targeted outreach to severely impacted neighborhoods would expand across the region and be coupled with attorneys who would provide legal assistance.

“How we channel our energies depends on the context of the tenant’s building and the local city, county, and governing state laws,” Donlin says. “For instance, Los Angeles is home to small landlords, massive corporate landlords, and foreign investors from around the world. Each of these actors behave differently, thus affecting the tenant-landlord relationship differently. Meanwhile, tenants in many parts of Los Angeles County have few protections due to California state laws – the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act and the Ellis Act – that make evictions easy for landlords.”

Given this context, what impact would RTC have in Los Angeles? “A lot,” says Donlin. “Every tenant in the state is afforded at least minimal rights, many of which are abused and violated by some landlords and property managers on a daily basis,” he explains. “For those tenants who have additional rights, having access to a lawyer ensures those rights are real. Having a lawyer can mean the difference between being homeless and keeping one’s home. Between being evicted at the expense of the tenant and receiving meaningful relocation assistance. Between feeling disrespected and dehumanized in the legal system and feeling empowered that one’s rights will be upheld in a fair and meaningful process.”

Acknowledging calls for additional tenant protections, Los Angeles County supervisors in September 2019 passed motions to advance several tenant-protection measures, including an eviction defense program for low-income households facing eviction. Initial funding proposed included $2 million for startup costs and $12.5 million annually for implementation.

Right to Counsel: Empowering Tenants

As municipalities recognize the potential benefits of RTC, and more local governments introduce legislation, the movement for RTC continues to gain strength. Pollock notes that legal services organizations and bar associations have been particularly active in recent years, developing a number of resolutions, creating task forces, coordinating with local and state governments, and commissioning independent research on RTC matters.

In addition to the lack of access to counsel for eviction defense, the lack of affordable rental housing is a critical problem facing tenants and, thus, a growing focus area among legislators. But even as attorneys and lawmakers become increasingly involved with housing efforts, any local movement begins with the tenants themselves. Tenants are the individuals who experience actual evictions and the negative impact on communities. They have the most at stake and are at the forefront of organizing efforts. Thus, their leadership is critical to the development of RTC campaigns and legislation.

“Tenant organizing groups bring tenants and their allies together to align and direct our collective power toward a common goal,” says Donlin. “The goals tenants have generally involve changing public policy, the business practices of landlords, developers, and investors, and the public narrative that often diminishes the value of renters.”

Blankley echoes these sentiments. “RTC is so much more than funding for free attorneys,” she says. “RTC laws embolden tenants to organize and fight for their rights, as the threat of eviction becomes less powerful. The knowledge that tenants have a right to an attorney will be a deterrent to landlords who would otherwise harass tenants, deny services and repairs, or charge illegal rents.”

This empowerment of those facing eviction is a key element of the RTC movement and essential to developing a comprehensive RTC strategy that benefits entire communities.

“Any one strategy – including RTC – will fall short of what’s needed to keep communities strong and stable,” says Donlin. “Therefore, we do not develop a campaign strategy that doesn’t build tenant power.”

How to Get Involved

The RTC activities and initiatives profiled herein are just a sampling of the broader RTC advocacy work occurring in many cities and states across the country. Despite their strong advocacy efforts, most RTC campaigns are under-resourced and always seeking volunteers and in-kind donations. If you want to get involved in your region, contact your local bar association or search to find an RTC organization near you. The website justshelter.org also provides additional resources as well as contact information for hundreds of national and local housing and legal organizations. To assist advocates in other cities, the aforementioned RTCNYC Coalition campaign toolkit can be found at rtctoolkit.org. For information on the civil right to counsel movement as well as the latest national news around eviction-related RTC, visit civilrighttocounsel.org. For additional information on Stout’s involvement with RTC coalitions, including Stout’s comprehensive research on the issue, please contact us at stout.com/contact.

Impacts of Eviction

  • Family instability, disruption, and displacement
  • Homelessness
  • Increased shelter costs
  • Increased policing, incarceration, prosecution, and court costs
  • Costs related to encampment cleanup and sanitation
  • Disruption to children's education
  • Loss of employment and/or difficulty finding employment
  • Increased risk of physical and mental health issues
  • Increased healthcare costs related to physical and mental health issues
  • Increased risk of children entering foster care and/or experiencing abuse/neglect
  • Community instability
  • Negative impact of credit scores and ability to re-rent
  • Loss of personal assets
  • Reduction in affordable housing stock in jurisdictions with rent regulations

Quantitative Impacts of Having Representation

  • In New York City, 84% of households represented in court by lawyers were able to remain in their homes.[1]
  • As a result of New York City’s increased commitment to proving free legal services to tenants, residential evictions have decreased approximately 27% over the last four years and approximately 5% from 2016 to 2017.[2] 
  • Researchers have found that tenants who were represented by attorneys were more than 4.4x more likely to retain possession of their apartments than similar tenants who were not represented, and more than twice as likely to retain possession than similar tenants who received limited-scope representation.[3]
  • One study found that fully represented tenants paid $0 on average to their landlords, compared with over $600 paid by tenants who received limited-scope representation.[4]
  • Fully represented tenants are 4x less likely to enter homeless shelters.[5]
  • The appearance of an attorney for either party has been shown to increase settlement rates:[6]
    • 7% if neither party were represented
    • 26% if defendant were represented
    • 38% if the plaintiff were represented
  • Fully represented tenants win or settle their cases 96% of the time.[7]
  • Nearly 80% of tenants with lawyers leave court without an eviction record stemming from the case, compared with just 6% of unrepresented tenants.[8]
  • In Philadelphia, represented tenants who agree to vacate their apartments have approximately 50 days to vacate their apartments compared with 35 days for unrepresented tenants.[9]
  • In Chicago, represented tenants were more than twice as likely to have their cases dismissed. When tenants were represented the rate of landlord summary possession awards dropped from 84.2% to 38.7%.[10]

  1. "Universal Access to Legal Services: A Report on Year One of Implementation in New York City," Prepared by the Office of Civil Justice, New York City Human Resources Administration, Fall 2018.
  2. “NYC Office of Civil Justice Annual Report and Strategic Plan,” New York City Office of Civil Justice, 2017.
  3. Rebecca L. Sandefur, "The Impact of Counsel: An Analysis of Empirical Evidence," Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 9: Issue 1, Article 3, p. 78, 2010.
  4. James Greiner, Jonathan Hennessy, and Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, The Limits of Unbundled Legal Assistance in a District Court in the United States, Harvard Law Review, 2013.
  5. Luke Grundman and Muria Kruger, Legal Representation in Evictions – Comparative Study, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and Volunteer Lawyers Network, 2018.
  6. Paula Hannaford-Agor and Nicole Mott, “Research on Self-Represented Litigation: Preliminary Results and Methodological Considerations,” The Justice System Journal, 2003.
  7. Luke Grundman and Muria Kruger, Legal Representation in Evictions – Comparative Study, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and Volunteer Lawyers Network, 2018.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Philadelphia Housing Court data.
  10. Julian R. Birnbaum, Nancy B. Collins, and Anthony J. Fusco Jr., Chicago's Eviction Court: A Tenants' Court of No Resort, 17 Urb. L. Ann. 93, 1979.

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