Amid Eviction Crisis, Organizers Win Right to Legal Representation for Tenants

The multiple ongoing crises around housingMillions of Americans are experiencing a decline in their lives and livelihoods across the United States. When tenants are evicted from their homes at the whim of their landlord, oftentimes, their difficulties have only just begun — a sequence of destructive individual and social consequences regularly follows.

Tenants can generally be evicted by landlords across the country. Tenant law structures are usually very friendly to the right-hand class. There is no filing fee. Rentier owners can often steamroll their tenants in court through legal representation. they utilize in around 80 percent of eviction cases. Tenants are entitled to a lawyer to represent them in about 3 percent of cases.

This disproportionality is a major reason why the majority of eviction proceedings are rigged against justice. The codification of a tenant right to counsel — i.e., enshrining the legal right to a public defender in eviction court — would rebalance power dynamics, disincentivize the kneejerk recourse to eviction and deter exploitation and abusesMany types, with major positive ramifications for all renters — especially the marginalized.

In the last five years, advocates and organizers, recognizing a tenant right to counsel’s outsize potential, have seized upon the opportunity. Nationwide, the work of committed advocates — including tenants’ unions, socialist organizers, housing rights activists and legal aid organizations — has produced tangible progress on real-world implementations of what was once an entirely unrecognized civil right in the U.S.

The promise of these efforts is traceable to both the dogged work of legal aid programs and the transformative power of collective action taken by tenant’s unions, community associations and organizers who seek to recalibrate the tilted scales.

An Incessant Stream Of Displacement

Evictions are a pernicious feature of the U.S. rent market. Between 2000 and 2018, the average number of evictions was around 3 million households faced eviction filings per year — 7 percent of the renting population. In recent years, despite evictions moratoriums, unemployment, and CARES Act aid payments during pandemic, expulsions have continued: Landlords filed over a million evictionsSince March 2020. (The moratoriums have also proven markedly porousEnforcement has been patchy at best. Regardless, as emergency measures expire, evictions are again risingMike Ludwig has reported that levels are back to pre-pandemic levels. Truthout.)

This incessant stream is facilitated by the inequal power between landlords and renters in housing court. Legal aid organizations such as Legal Aid International have recognized this disparity even before the recent wave of organizing. the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, a project by the Public Justice Center.The coalition pushes for public defendersin civil cases, which include housing court. (The U.S. is an outlier among developed countries(In failing to ensure civil-court defense. TruthoutJohn Pollock, Executive Director of National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, spoke to us about the seriousness of the eviction crisis as well as the progress made in right to counsel nationally.

Pollock stressed that evictions can have far more devastating effects than people think. “When you ask what’s affected by someone losing their home, the better question is what’s Not affected. Everything is at risk.” Becoming homeless after an eviction — a very common occurrence — “puts you at immediate risk of arrest, incarceration and a criminal record,” he said. The strain can lead to a variety of problems. an enormous impact on physicalAnd mental health.

An eviction on one’s record precipitates all manner of future problems. Thanks to landlords’ ability to obtain data on tenant-screening reports, an eviction can follow a tenant for years and create impassable barriers to obtaining later housing. There are many ways to get evicted, including damages to credit, court fees and rent judgments. As Pollock put it, “Whether or not you’re homeless, your children may be at risk — you may lose your custody if you don’t have a stable home. Your job. Your children may need to change schools. The list is endless of the ways it can destroy a family.”

It is hard to imagine the impact on human well-being of millions of evictions every year in a country that has millions. Government spending on mitigating the social effects, “like homeless shelters, mental health treatment, police and jails, and prosecutors,” Pollock pointed out, far exceeds the cost of providing lawyers to tenants.

Evictions and housing crises are closely linked to systemic injustices. Evictions disproportionately impact people of color — and of those, women are particularly affected. LGBTQ+ discriminationEvictions are also rampant. Organizers are now keen to prevent evictions via right to counsel and other methods.

Landlords use evictions to retaliate against tenant organizing

Whether an eviction is “warranted” or not, advocates say, should be up for a fair court to decide, in which both parties have equal representation. While “problem tenants” of course exist, landlords also turn to eviction on disingenuous grounds: retaliating in a dispute, against tenant organizing, or if tenants complain to the rent board or the city — even the slightest pushback can result in a whiplash expulsion. Landlords might also want to sell the building or move into a unit for profit. assert their power to collect debts. To gain leverage, it can be beneficial to keep tenants in arrears. These fights, no matter what the motivation, can be bitter. There are numerous cases. landlords naming childrenAs defendants in eviction proceedings as a form harassment and intimidation.

The tactful filing of evictions follows the path of least resistance. “If a landlord runs into any sort of dispute with a tenant, it’s so easy for them to go to court and just evict someone.… They know that the tenant is not going to have counsel,” said Pollock. “Landlords that have not been complying with the law don’t really worry. Not doing repairs, overcharging tenants — no one will catch them.” When tenants represent themselves, they must navigate the labyrinthine corridors of the legal system, where even a slight misunderstanding of opaque and obscure laws can torpedo their case.

To institute a right to counsel — securing a lawyer familiar with the intricacies of the proceedings to help a tenant secure necessary documentation, understand terminology, show up for them in court if they’re at work, decrease judgments, keep an eviction off their record or buy time — is to radically rebalance the scales.

First Forays in New York City

The long struggle waged in New York City by the lawyers for justice was instrumental in shifting the tide towards counsel. a coalitionOf activists, community organizers, lawyersUnionistsMany of them are tenants. Their efforts culminated in the passage of New York City’s 2017 Local Law 136. This earlier iteration of the right to counsel was initially limited to tenants making under 200 percent of the federal poverty line, making it “means-tested,” i.e., subject to income caveats.

However, during the pandemic ban, the program was eventually expandedIt was available to all tenants in the city, even if it was only a few. “100 percent of tenants with calendared eviction cases had access to legal services, and 71 percent of tenants who appeared in Housing Court had full representation by attorneys — nearly double the pre-pandemic rate of 38 percent, and an exponential increase over the 1 percent of tenants who had lawyers in 2013,” noted a city press release.

Follow-up reports indicate the program’s continued successToday: 84 percent of the tenants represented were able stay in their homes, evictions dropped by a fifthIn some areas, positive effects on well-beingThese have been documented all over the board. Unfortunately, some New York housing court judge have been absent since March. have begun to compel tenantsThe expiration of the moratorium, shortages of lawyers, and backlogs make it impossible for you to appear in court without representation. The rupture is a reminder of the fact that counsel rights cannot be taken as a given. It must be defended.

San Francisco Wins Universal Access

It is possible to make counsel available to everyone to ensure that it remains functional and less easily defended by opponents. Universality is also crucial if you want to maximize the program’s effectiveness. Income (“means”) testing puts up barriers to access, necessitates additional bureaucracy and recapitulates “welfare” stigmas.

Complex eviction proceedings can be very fast and, on top of the stress of an expulsion, the requirement that tenants complete more paperwork can cause major problems. Pollock said that. Truthout, legal aid programs “don’t have a lot of time to even get to the tenant or get them to court.… The process of getting all the documentation to verify income, it really slows things down.”

The simplest solution to this problem is to eliminate means testing altogether. New York led the codification and enforcement of a right counsel. However, it was San Francisco organizers and tenants advocates who fought for Proposition F in 2018. the first truly universal right to counselIn the nation

Proposition F was prompted by the No Eviction without Representation campaign. Filed by the SF Right to Counsel Committee, the measure’s backers included many members of the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) San FranciscoChapterTenants Together, its founder Dean Preston, a city supervisor and DSA member who was also an architect of the measure, and the SF Tenants Union. Legal aid nonprofits like Eviction Defense Collaborative supported them. Their organizing and agitation won the election. The program was implemented and $5.8million was distributed to approximately a dozen legal aid agencies to provide counsel.

This was a particularly pointed intervention in a city where grotesque wealth inequality and a gaping shortage of affordable housing have made eviction, displacement and homelessness commonplace — a city where, “Evictions account for 17 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness in San Francisco,” SF Weekly reported. Tenants in San Francisco have been served since 2009. 1,700 eviction noticesA year. Eighty to 90 percent of evicted tenantsThere was no representation from a lawyer in the housing court.

Reports through 2021Prop F has led to a significant increase in the number of tenants who can remain in their homes, and a decrease in the amount of landlords who are unable to rent. significant reductions in rent settlements. Universality has also not hampered the program: 85 percent of those who use it are very low income and 9 percent are moderate income, meaning the rationale behind means testing is made redundant — program use has been de facto income-targeted, simply as the structural product of necessity. Despite this, the effort remains difficult. a shortage of tenant lawyersThe program has been plagued by problems. It was initially launched. was not immediately availableTo all tenants, but less recently, to full-financed tenants with a budget increase to $17 million. It has had a profound impact on many people’s lives. gathered by Martin Kuz in The Christian Science MonitorThese are a moving testimony to the vital role of tenant counsel services.

Organizers, Take Notice

These two metropoles on the coast adopted their flagship right to counsel models. Similar programs started to appear with incredible speed. Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland, Ohio;And Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,They are not all the same, but these examples were still means-tested.

After the pandemic, the right to counsel was further bolstered. As Shane Burley and Laura Jedeed have documented. Truthout, major concerns about housing spurred increasingly strident action to aid tenants — both action in policy and the more direct varieties: e.g. Rent strikes, occupations, and eviction defense are just a few of the many issues that arise. surge in tenant organizations and unions.

The momentum spread quickly to right-to counsel efforts in Boulder Colorado; Baltimore, Maryland; Louisville Kentucky; and Seattle Washington. As Abigail Savitch-Lew catalogued several for The Appeal, by mid-2021, “Cities like Houston; Santa Monica, California; and Rochester, New York, [had] launched pilot programsNew Jersey, and. [had] launched a pilot in three counties.” Over the next year, Denver, Colorado; Detroit, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota, codified all rights, as did many local jurisdictions.

The first full state to do so was WashingtonMaryland, then Connecticut. Numerous bills and ordinances, measures, and proposals of all types are currently pending around the country. While all of these programs vary in their comprehensiveness, their durability, their universality and their funding sources, it’s become clear that, although a long road remains to achieving a national right to counsel, a certain critical mass has been achieved.

A Tenant’s Organization Success in Kansas City

One of the more resounding recent successes took place in Kansas City, Missouri, where a citywide tenant’s union called KC TenantsOrganized behind a right–to-counsel ordinance It was passed in December 2021Thanks to the efforts of grassroots organizers, which included the union, it was possible. This June saw the start of implementation.

Mason Andrew Kilpatrick works as a community organizer for KC Tenants. Send an email to Truthout, he cited the overwhelming odds facing unrepresented renters: “From 2006-2016, over 99.8% of Jackson County eviction hearings resulted in tenants losing their homes.” 2021 saw over 5,000 evictions.

Sabrina Davis was one of those recently affected. She was a Kansas City tenant who was subject to a nightmare ordeal from 2020 to 2021. She shared her story TruthoutHer landlord’s wiring was defective, resulting in monthly utility bills exceeding a thousand dollars. Her landlord’s response, to avoid paying for repairs, was an immediate eviction. He used fraudulently unpaid rent as the reason and tried to mislead his tenant into giving up on a court date. When she refused to leave, he began to retaliate viciously.

“He’d done all these egregious things against me,” Davis told Truthout. “He took the air conditioning off the house.… I came back and the locks were all changed.… They’d trashed the house — they threw red paint on the walls and said that I did it.… It was so horrible.”

She was able get in touch with KC Tenants and secure pro bono representation. Organizer Kilpatrick met with Jones and heard her concerns: “He stood up for me, and he stayed around,” she said. With legal aid, she was able to turn the tide in court, eventually winning back her year’s rent and deposit in a settlement.

“My landlord had screwed so many people over the years,” she said, with still-smoldering outrage. “My lawyer found out through discovery that he’d been a landlord since 1993, and every single person that man had ever rented to, he evicted. He won cases because people didn’t show up and fight, so he won on default. He figured I wouldn’t show up.”

She was emphatic on this point: “I won my case because I had counsel. Because I had a lawyer.” This traumatic experience led her into organizing. “I was at my wit’s end,” she told Truthout. “I said, ‘Oh my god, I cannot be just another story. I have to stand up for other folks that are going through the same mess and let them know that they’re not alone and that there’s a way out.’ So, I joined KC Tenants.” Thereafter, she participated in the campaign that won right to counsel: a victory that fulfilled her hopes for others.

Much as in the rest of the country, in Kansas City, said Kilpatrick, housing court is weighted “against poor and working tenants in the eviction process from the beginning.” Property owners have resources, and their lawyers may have “relationships with judges and civil court servants. These lawyers are well-educated in the civil court process and can work with landlords to find loopholes in leases and laws that make it easier for them to push tenants out of homes.”

The same patterns are in evidence in Missouri as elsewhere: “The odds were much better for tenants who were represented by lawyers,” Kilpatrick said. “During the pandemic, Kansas City began funding three eviction defense lawyers. Through that program, over 90 percent of tenants who gained representation remained housed and eviction-free.”

KC Tenants has also taken direct actions. These include verbally and physical disruption of court proceedings and teleconferences. (Eleanor J. Bader reported some for TruthoutIn 2020. Another success was the 2019 passage of a Tenants’ Bill of Rights. The 2021 ordinance was a strong example of the right that they supported. The Kansas City program is notable for its strength and universality, as well as the fact that the ordinance is one of the few “drafted directly by impacted tenants,” said Kilpatrick.

“KC Tenants,” he continued, “knows that people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. We discussed the first step together. [the ordinance’s structure] with tenants who have been evicted … or are at threat of losing their homes from negligent landlords.”

Research, community input and draft models produced a fully funded universal ordinance, which includes features like city staffing support, notifying tenants of their rights, annual accountability reports and a tenants’ oversight committee. The latter “works with the city to hold city staff and contracted lawyers accountable for maintaining the right to counsel process to a standard that actually works for poor and working tenants,” Kilpatrick noted.

The Kansas City right-to counsel victory is a result of accumulated knowledge and experience. This includes both local needs and injustices, as well as the fine-tuning provided by many current right-to counsel formulas.

Looking Forward in Portland

Housing advocates, socialists, and tenant organizations in Portland, Oregon are taking over the role of their interstate counterparts. Many of them were involved in the UP NOW campaign which won Multnomah County a universal pre-school program via a ballot measure in 2020. UP NOW organizers, along with members of the Portland chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, set their sights on a new right to counsel. Eviction Representation for All. Supporters include elements of the North Portland Tenants Collective, Portland Tenants United, Don’t Evict PDX and the Eviction Defense Project of the Oregon Law Center.

Portland’s progressive sheen often serves to obscure its neoliberal governance and deeply riven injustices. With the city facing a major housing crisisRenter stability is becoming increasingly difficult to find, especially for the marginalized and working class. HarassmentThe situation of landlords with tenants has gotten worse (especially against people of color), and a lawsuit from landlords recently led the city council to revoke protections against unfair fees. Accordingly, tenants’ rights movements have found particular purchase, and tenants’ unions have been a key source of support for struggling renters throughout the pandemic and the threadbare protections of the would-be moratorium.

The planning for the Eviction Representative for All measure began in earnest starting in 2021. “[We] reached out and had really great conversations with organizers that both succeeded in their right-to-counsel measures and those who didn’t,” Colleen Carroll, an Eviction Representation for All organizer and local housing activist, told Truthout. Carroll was previously involved with Don’t Evict PDX, a community organisation involved in protestsmonitoring and eviction court monitoring. He is well-versed in the intricacies and injustices of housing court.

Court watchers had noted that, despite the ostensible moratorium on evictions for non-payment, plenty of evictions were still going through — yet with notice that listed causes other than non-payment. (Carroll cited examples like “too many plants on a balcony, a TV playing too loudly.”) In other words, landlords were filing spurious charges to skirt the moratorium and continue evictions.

This insight helped organizers to plan the new right–to-counsel initiative. “Some of the other right-to-counsel programs were only for certain causes,” Carroll pointed out, “or only for certain tenants, like tenants with a child in the household, or low-income tenants. We realized that with any of those types of restrictions, like our moratorium, landlords were going to find a way around it.” To counter this tactic, as well as to avoid the bureaucratic barriers put up by means testing, it was critical, organizers believed, that the measure be universal like those in San Francisco, Boulder and Kansas City.

It was decided that a ballot measure was the optimal route, the same strategy that had delivered UP NOW’s pre-K program to success. “If we went the ordinance path, we would have been asked to compromise on certain things,” said Carroll, “on it being universal, [or on the] self-funding tax mechanism.” One of the Eviction Representation for All measure’s standout features is that it will be funded by a 0.75 percent increase in an existing capital gains tax, meaning that it simultaneously strikes a blow to regressive taxation. Building on a pre-existing tax also lowers one hurdle to the measure’s passage.

Eviction Representation for All will also require that tenants be furnished with a lawyer at “first notice of termination, rather than court filings,” Carroll noted — an important nuance. The speed of eviction court means time is critical. And, she continued, “It appears on paper that [Portland has]Low eviction rates compared to other areas in the United States. But what isn’t documented is that Many, manyTenants are evicted Before the court process.” Tenants will often leave immediately after first notice, “either because they’re so afraid of the court process, they don’t want an eviction on their record, or they don’t understand their rights.”

Jesse Joseph is a Portland DSA member. He is also an Eviction Representation for All organizer. He has been tirelessly gathering signatures to get the measure onto the November ballot. “When we do talk to people, the response is overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “A lot of people are surprised this doesn’t already exist.” The core pitch is, after all, relatively simple: as the ERA site header puts it, “Eviction court is rigged.”

“I think you’d be surprised at how many of them will say, I could have used this,” Joseph said. “Or, I’m dealing with an eviction right now. Or my daughter, or my brother, is facing an eviction. A lot of people just needed a moment to vent.”

Though, if passed, Eviction Representation for All’s incarnation of right-to-counsel will be limited to Multnomah County, a successful measure promises to have catalytic effects on future initiatives, as well as tenant power and collective bargaining. “Tenants in [other counties]We are looking at the Multnomah County measure, and saying yes, if that protection was available, we would feel safer organizing [for] repairs, for rent caps, and all of that,” Carroll related.

The campaign is currently in the final weeks of its signature-gathering phase at the time of publication. Carroll and Joseph expressed optimism regarding its placement on November ballot. They also emphasized the transformative effects a right-to-counsel would have on Portland’s inequalities and local injustices.

A Long-Overdue Remediation

Evictions are a widespread problem that can be prevented by limiting their impact. Evictions, as Carroll said, are “a catalyst. I think some people think of it as, ‘Oh, this is the culminating point; this is the big crescendo!’ And it’s not. It’s often the beginning of the story of hardship.” Legal defense can mean halting that familiar narrative before it begins. It’s become abundantly clear that a right to counsel exerts an outsize impact as an intervention, with positive knock-on effects for the well-being of the renting populace.

It’s not often that a single inflection point is so readily identifiable and combatable in situations of injustice. That’s not to say that it’s a simple matter — but with tenant organizing on the riseNew opportunities are likely in the near-term, after the COVID ruptures.

National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel Director John Pollock emphasized, “This is becoming a movement that is unified with a common understanding of what works. [We’re] connecting jurisdictions to each other so that everyone’s learning from everyone else. There are dozens and dozens of places that are in the pipeline that we’re talking to.… We see things happening in the next couple years that will even add to what’s been accomplished.”

The enthusiasm and optimism expressed by advocates for the topic are palpable. All agree that collective action was the source of recent successes and will continue to be the way to achieve more.

Davis, who has witnessed the violence that can accompany evictions firsthand is acutely aware of the urgent need to provide legal aid and community solidarity. “I’ve lived in Kansas City for 20 years,” she said. “When I became a disabled person, and I had to live on disability, and lost my income and my way of life, I saw how people were treated. It was deplorable to my eyes. I couldn’t handle it. All over Kansas City, every time I moved, I got a worse landlord by the one before.”

Kilpatrick, who was there to support Davis throughout her ordeal has helped build the community power necessary in resisting housing injustice. As he wrote, “When poor and working people create space to listen and take action with each other, our relationships with each other deepen.… We are real about our intent to make change happen together. The realness of our community and relationships is liberation at work.”

These words are true to Davis, who expresses unreserved gratitude to Kilpatrick, her co-organizers, and Davis. “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been involved in,” she told Truthout, adding that the other organizers “lift me up and they make me keep going and keep fighting.”

“Now that we have the right to counsel, we’re saving people by the day — we saved 150 in a week from eviction,” she added. “I will never quit. I will forever be a KC Tenant!”