Legal Representation in Housing Court Gaining Traction as Evictions Abound

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September 13, 2016; NextCity

Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted has stirred a new awareness of the problem of eviction. Since most journalists and scholars have never had firsthand experiences with eviction, the revelations of Desmond’s book opened new eyes to the downward spiral of low-income tenants from rent burden to substandard conditions toward homelessness. But Desmond’s prescriptions for how to address this social need have still received less attention than they deserve.

Making housing subsidies a universal need-based entitlement was remedy number one in Desmond’s book. NPQ addressed the need for universal housing subsidies in an article entitled, “Why Aren’t Housing Vouchers Like Food Stamps?” Recently, there’s been some attention to Desmond’s second prescription: universal representation in eviction court. A story in NextCity highlights some of the progress being made in providing legal support to tenants in NYC housing court.

More New Yorkers Facing Eviction Are Getting Lawyers” describes how, with City of New York support, 27 percent of tenants in New York’s Housing Court now have legal representation, up from one percent just a year before. NYC City Council is also considering a bill to guarantee legal representation for all tenants in Housing Court. How can NYC afford to pay $3,000 for each tenant that gets representation? It turns out that keeping tenants in housing is cheaper than supporting them in the homeless system.

No matter how simple or complex a case may be, here’s a factor to keep in mind: While the city might pay $3,000 for representation that keeps a family in their existing apartment, if instead they’re evicted and end up cycling in and out of homeless shelters, that same family might cost the city more than $43,000 per year, according to a study by the Right to Counsel Coalition.

NPQ’s stories on the Baltimore Rent Court and on eviction reform highlighted the fact that eviction court is designed by and for landlords’ attorneys. Tenants who naively believe they will have a chance to raise a defense or offer an explanation for nonpayment are often disappointed when a magistrate declares “writ to issue” and a smiling attorney moves to the next case. Without representation, few tenants have an opportunity to present evidence in the form of documents and witnesses because they don’t know how courts work. One especially pernicious practice is the “hallway agreement” where the landlord’s attorney tells the tenant, “Give me the money and you won’t have to appear in front of the judge”—then dismisses the tenant and gets a default judgment for possession and a claim for money damages. Magistrates who attend the same Bar Association meetings and social events as the landlords’ attorneys often have little in common with unpolished witnesses often accompanied by children.

NYC is not the only place considering expansion of civil representation at the point of eviction. “D.C. Bar Foundation Funds New Project To Provide Counsel To Tenants In Subsidized Housing” tells how Washington is getting new resources to address eviction representation.

While these innovations are promising, the problem of eviction continues to grow. At a meeting of the Cuyahoga Affordable Housing Alliance last week, a representative of Cleveland’s Housing Court told the group of advocates that there was a dramatic upsurge of eviction filings in 2016. Advocates told him that there was a similar upsurge in families turning up at homeless shelters. One day later, the Columbus Dispatch ran a story about the Licking County Court’s upsurge in eviction activity under the title, “Evictions still on rise in Licking County despite recovery.” An informal poll of legal services attorneys on the Housing Justice Network is beginning to gather data on evictions per capita, per household, and per renter household from Metro areas around the country.—Spencer Wells