With Evictions Looming, US Cities Seek Legal Help For Renters

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Advocates are looking to New York City, where evictions have fallen by 40% since renters were guaranteed representation in court.

Washington – When Shalonda Glascoe fell behind on her rent as she struggled to find a job amid the coronavirus outbreak this spring, her landlord tried to kick her out of her Baltimore home – twice.

Eventually, Glascoe, 47, sought free legal help, a decision she says was key in allowing her to stay in her home in the northeastern U.S. city.

Without legal assistance, “I don’t think I would be here right now. I think I would have lost the fight,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Over the past few months, bans on evictions during the pandemic have been enacted at the city, state and federal levels, yet landlords are still filing notices – and the rate may even be picking up, housing experts warn.

As U.S. families continue being forced from their homes, renters’ advocates and lawmakers are calling for “right to counsel” policies to give all tenants legal representation in eviction court or help navigating the protections open to them.

“What we’re seeing amid COVID-19 is various laws being passed to provide some protection for renters, but they’re full of gray areas and loopholes,” said C. Matthew Hill, an attorney with the nonprofit Public Justice Center who assisted Glascoe.

Having a lawyer on her side set Glascoe apart from many others in her position, according to John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, a network that advocates for the issue.

Only a tenth of tenants are represented by an attorney in eviction court, compared to 90% of landlords, he said.

The idea of a renters’ right to counsel is gaining ground across the country, including in Baltimore, where earlier this month City Council President Brandon M. Scott proposed a law that guarantees an attorney for every tenant in eviction court.

“With eviction protections for renters scarce, we need to take action to get relief and support to our residents that will exist beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” Scott said in emailed comments.

The management company at Glascoe’s townhouse, Atlantic Realty Group, did not respond to a request for comment.

Watered-down ban

After a federal moratorium on evictions went into effect in September, covering most tenants, the U.S. government issued new guidance this month that advocates say waters down the original order and opens tenants to new dangers.

Under the non-binding guidance, landlords are allowed to initiate eviction proceedings at any point, even though tenants cannot be removed from their homes until the moratorium ends in December.

The guidance also says landlords can challenge in court the declarations tenants are required to sign to be protected under the moratorium.

The National Apartment Association, an industry group, applauded the new guidance, noting in a statement from President Robert Pinnegar that it “creates a path forward for the apartment industry”.

But housing advocates worry it will lead to greater confusion among tenants and prompt many to “self-evict” out of fear that they risk going to jail, said Pollock.

“You have unrepresented tenants being put on a stand by a landlord’s attorney for a one-sided cross-examination. It’s already started to happen, but now the floodgates are going to open,” he said.

Leveling the field

The push for a right to counsel for tenants in eviction court is a relatively new movement, starting with 2014 legislation in New York City.

Since then, five cities have established similar programs, said Pollock, and there has been a massive groundswell of work and interest elsewhere, including among state governments.

Various industry voices have come out against right-to-counsel proposals.

“Right to counsel policies, though often well-intentioned, have unintended consequences that could impact the health and safety of other residents, like delays in eviction proceedings,” said Greg Brown, a senior vice president with the National Apartment Association.

Such policies also fail to address the underlying cause of evictions, he said in emailed comments: “the financial instability of renters and the rental housing supply/demand imbalance.”

But backers of the programs say a right to counsel can level the playing field between tenants and landlords – not only keeping many in their homes, but also saving cities money.

Since New York proposed its law six years ago, evictions in the city have fallen by more than 40%, according to an official announcement earlier this year, while nearly 85% of those who do go to eviction court end up staying in their homes, Pollock said.

In San Francisco, California, where the right went into effect last year, two-thirds of tenants who get full representation manage to stop their evictions, he added.

Such a program would cost Baltimore about $5.7 million a year, but would save the city and the state of Maryland six times as much, according to a study by global consulting firm Stout, Risius and Ross.

Those savings would be the result of fewer people needing services aimed at homeless populations, such as emergency health care, temporary housing and transporting homeless students to school, the report explained.

‘Let’s get this in place’

The financial effects of the pandemic have made evictions an urgent issue in Boulder, Colorado, which next month will vote on a referendum to provide a right to counsel to tenants, said activist Ruy Arango.

“Many (people), including tenants, are under the impression that there are already protections in place. When they find out there aren’t, they say, ‘Let’s get this in place,'” said Arango, chair of the No Eviction Without Representation campaign.

The Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, which represents landlords, opposes the measure.

“Providing a lawyer for tenants does not resolve the problem of non-payment,” the group warned in a statement released in August. “The funds end up in the attorney’s pocket instead of assisting the population who truly needs the help.”

In some cities, a full right to counsel is a longer-term aim, but advocates have adopted smaller-scale measures in the interim.

A year ago, Jeff Yungman, legal services director at the nonprofit One80 Place, started a “housing court” on set days at four magistrate courts in and around North Charleston, South Carolina, giving free legal help to anyone undergoing eviction.

North Charleston has the highest eviction rate in the country, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which uses 2016 data, the most recent available.

From October 2019 through the end of July, Yungman said, nearly three-quarters of people represented through the project did not get evicted.

Judges have been uniformly supportive, he noted, but obstacles to expanding the project include getting enough attorneys to volunteer their time – something that would be dealt with through an official right to counsel.

Right now, Yungman said the project is as large as he can manage on his own. He is already worried about what will happen when the federal eviction moratorium runs out at the end of the year.

“We’re thinking in January, it’s going to be nuts,” he said.