Even if you’ve never faced eviction proceedings, you can probably imagine they are stressful.
Depending on the state, landlords may have a tremendous amount of power over tenants, who have limited recourse in some courts. Plus, because eviction is a civil (not criminal) legal matter, there’s no legally enshrined right to counsel. If you don’t have an attorney and cannot afford one, one will not be appointed for you. Instead, you have to go it alone.
Dealing with the justice system can be an expensive and confusing proposition. And for low-income people, the challenges of navigating the system in cases like evictions are especially challenging, thanks to limited financial resources and a lack of understanding — one reason legal aid organizations exist. But these groups can’t meet all the need. In 2017, 62 percent to 72 percent of people who asked for legal aid couldn’t get it due to staffing shortages, limitations on the assistance available and other factors.
That’s where the right to counsel movement comes in. Civil rights advocates argue that being poor shouldn’t be a crime — or grounds for being stripped of property and liberty. But often, the lack of an attorney means low-income people are treated unfairly in court. This is especially true with evictions. The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition says about 50 percent of evictions would be preventable with an attorney.
The New York City Council passed a law in 2017 to extend the right to counsel to people facing eviction, foreclosure and certain other housing-related cases in court — saying low-income people would be provided publicly funded attorneys if they needed assistance. In much the same way that public defenders help even the playing field — or would if they weren’t dealing with an overwhelming caseload — these attorneys can keep people in their homes. From a purely practical perspective, it’s very cost-effective to provide people with legal help before they’re homeless than to hook them up with services later.
The city is rolling out this service slowly to take up arms against “the eviction machine,” targeting especially high-risk communities first for the highest impact. Although the rollout isn’t complete, data are starting to roll in, showing the program’s impact on low-income communities. And the results are incredibly promising. It turns out providing people with legal help works exactly as intended. Evictions are declining precipitously in zip codes where such programs are available.
New York isn’t the only place rolling out a pilot program. San Francisco also has one, and NPR reports several states are considering adopting statewide programs. This would be a huge victory — especially if these programs can expand over time to include other civil matters that tend to hit low-income people particularly hard. But housing is a good place to start, as evictions are skyrocketing in the United States and so is homelessness. Keeping people in their homes helps build stronger, healthier communities.
Other areas where low-income people could use help include child welfare cases, disputes over government benefits, obtaining protections from domestic partner violence and dealing with court fines and fees. National advocates find that receiving counsel makes outcomes more just and saves money, making it another great example of an issue where fiscal and social causes intertwine.