Civil movement

New Orleans and Detroit join movement for tenants’ right to counsel

By Andrew Stricker | May 20, 2022, 8:01 p.m. EDT
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A pandemic-fueled boom in tenants’ right to counsel laws appears to have power, with New Orleans and Detroit recently joining more than a dozen cities and states in securing tenants facing eviction. the right to a free lawyer.

While Detroit’s program will only be available to low-income renters, some proponents see growing momentum for the “full-access” model used in New Orleans and some other cities.

Cashauna Hill of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, which led the push for the New Orleans ordinance, said there had been “no meaningful debate” through a lengthy drafting and pilot program process. to limit access to only the poorest tenants in the city. City leaders were aware of growing data and research from other cities that public funds invested in housing preservation save money in other areas, she told Law360 Pulse.

“Here in New Orleans, they’re majority tenants, and our landlord-tenant legal system doesn’t give many rights to people facing eviction,” she said. “Given the realities of our system and our communities, it makes sense that everyone should have access to a lawyer before being forced from their homes.”

Since the enactment of New York City’s landmark Right to Counsel Act in 2017, the movement toward a guaranteed right to counsel has accelerated, especially amid the spotlight of the COVID-19 pandemic on the massive disparities many tenants face against landlords in eviction proceedings.

On May 5, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that cements the right to counsel for all tenants in eviction proceedings, as well as those facing termination of housing subsidies. The law also covers tenants seeking an injunction related to an unlawful eviction and for “just cause” appeals.

According to a 2019 report by researchers at Loyola University and the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a housing rights nonprofit, only 6% of households facing eviction in Orleans Parish had access to a lawyer. Among these cases, nearly 15% obtained an eviction judgment, compared to more than 65% of tenants without representation.

The program will be part of the city’s Office of Community Development and will be funded this year with $2 million from city coffers.

In Detroit, where just over half of residents are renters, city council members also this month unanimously passed a right to counsel ordinance. The law covers people in eviction and other occupancy-threatening proceedings, including mortgage and property tax foreclosures and rent subsidy challenges.

“Of the 30,000 eviction cases in Detroit, only 4% of those tenants had an attorney,” City Council Speaker Mary Sheffield said after the vote, according to Detroit radio station WDET. “Also, half of all the evictions that have happened in Detroit could have been avoided if they had had a lawyer.”

With the additions of Detroit and New Orleans, 15 cities and three states – Washington, Maryland and Connecticut – have enacted right to counsel laws in the past five years. Lawmakers in other states, including Illinois, Delaware and New Yorkare considering similar bills.

John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, said he was also encouraged by a growing number of right to counsel legislation reaching voters via ballot initiatives. This avenue was used successfully to pass legislation with no eligibility requirements in Boulder, Colorado two years ago, and one in San Francisco in 2018.

Later this year, voters in Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland, are also expected to weigh in on a ballot initiative that, if passed, will require the county government to provide “culturally specific” representation and free to anyone facing residential eviction, regardless of income.

In Denver, which has long been battling a severe housing crisis and high rents, housing advocates have had a universal right-to-lawyer initiative certified for the November election, despite the city enacting a law last year. a free legal aid program for low-income people. tenants.

“What we’re seeing is more right to a lawyer legislation that doesn’t even make it through city councils,” Pollock said. “These are people saying, ‘We want this done now,’ and pitching it directly to voters.”

Of the cities and states with right to counsel laws, five have included some form of eligibility requirement for tenants seeking free legal aid, according to the NCCRC. Most are based on a renter’s income relative to the “median affordability” for housing in the area, or the federal poverty level as determined annually by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Two cities – Louisville, Kentucky and Cleveland, Ohio – require renters to be low income and have at least one child living in the home to be eligible.

These and other eligibility restrictions reflect lawmakers’ concerns about already stretched budgets and long-term funding, Pollock argued, rather than a belief that only the poorest people facing eviction deserve representation. legal.

According to Pollock, recent data from San Francisco’s Right to Counsel program shows that the vast majority of tenants who seek free legal help have very low incomes.

But to establish income, tenants have to bring documents and go through legal aid groups, which increases costs and slows the process. Income limits also undermine the message sent to landlords that the dynamics of landlord-tenant proceedings can be radically altered under right-to-representation laws, he argued.

Knowing that tenants will have a lawyer, he said, “really changes the way of thinking, and rather than immediately going to court, a lot of landlords will say, ‘Maybe I’ll try to settle this directly with the tenant.'”

–Edited by Philip Shea.

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