Pro Bono in the News: Representation for Low-Income Tenants

apartments-154932_960_720In late September, in a move that would drastically change the landscape and even the playing field in evictions and foreclosures, the New York City Council proposed providing lawyers to all low-income residents in these cases. If it succeeds, New York would become the first municipality in the U.S. to significantly combat the power imbalance between landlords and low-income tenants. “Low-income” for the purposes of the bill is defined as having an annual income of less than twice the federal poverty level. In New York, that means a single person making less than $23,540, and for a family of four, less than $48,500.

Legal assistance is almost always the difference between success and failure for tenants. Housing law can be complex and confusing, and all legal matters require a basic knowledge of filing and pleading rules. Studies show that more than 70 percent of low-income litigants appear in court without a lawyer. The vast majority of landlords, on the other hand, are represented by experienced attorneys who know the law and understand how the court system works. When tenants represent themselves in court, they end up being evicted a majority of the time. On the other hand, studies have found that evictions fall more than 75 percent when tenants are represented by counsel. Even when an eviction does happen, experienced attorneys can help families improve their otherwise bleak situations by, among other things, locating assistance programs to cover arrears or having judgments vacated so that their credit scores do not suffer.

Advocates argue that New York can’t afford to delay enacting the proposal. Although providing legal representations to all low-income tenants would cost approximately $200 million a year, the effort would save even more than that – more than $300 million, annually – by keeping more than 5,000 families a year out of shelters, at a cost of $43,000 per family, along with other related savings. The economic benefits of providing legal assistance are wide-ranging and well-documented. These studies remind us that investing in civil legal aid is not only the right thing to do to ensure equal access to justice for all but also a smart use of public resources.