Housing is a fundamental human right, yet the United States does not guarantee a right to counsel for individuals fighting to protect the roof over their heads. This means low-income tenants face a high risk of unfavorable outcomes in housing court, including wrongful evictions, simply because they are ill-equipped to defend themselves in eviction proceedings. In several jurisdictions, advocates are organizing to improve the status quo by securing a right to counsel in housing eviction cases. These efforts present unique opportunities for pro bono lawyers.
New York. In New York City, there are 230,000 eviction cases or other proceedings brought against tenants annually. Historically, less than one percent of tenants have counsel while more than 90 percent of landlords are represented. Following an initiative that brought a significant increase in annual funding for legal services for tenants, the percentage of represented tenants in eviction cases increased from one percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2016, and the eviction rate dropped by 24 percent from 2013 to 2015, according to the New York City Office of Civil Justice. This initiative served as a precursor, bolstering longtime efforts by a broad coalition in New York to advocate for right to counsel legislation.
On August 11, 2017, New York City passed a law providing that at the end of five years, all income-eligible tenants (residents whose income is 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less) will be guaranteed legal representation in eviction cases. The city is rolling out the right to counsel by zip code. Pro bono attorneys helped draft the law, advocate for its passage, and research legal questions for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, such as whether the city had authority to implement a right to counsel without infringing on the authority of the courts or the state.
San Francisco. In 2012, less than 10 percent of tenants in San Francisco were represented in eviction cases. That same year, the city passed its Right to Counsel in Civil Matters Ordinance, declaring San Francisco a “Right to Counsel City,” and authorizing a one-year Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program, implemented by the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) of the Bar Association of San Francisco, to train pro bono attorneys to provide full-scope representation for tenants in eviction cases. The Pilot Program, which ran from October 2012 to September 2013, increased the representation of indigent tenants in eviction cases and provided critical data to support a right to counsel by showing that tenants are less likely to be evicted when they receive full-scope representation in housing court. On June 5, 2018, the city passed a ballot initiative, creating a taxpayer-funded right to counsel for all tenants in eviction cases with no income-eligibility threshold, and giving the city one year to determine how to implement the measure, which would expand legal services for tenants. In addition, JDC’s Homeless Advocacy Project continues to offer pro bono volunteers opportunities to help clients fight eviction proceedings, among other services.
District of Columbia. According to the DC Bar Foundation, there are more than 30,000 eviction cases each year in Washington, D.C. and, historically, only 10 percent of tenants in those cases have representation compared to 90 percent of landlords. In 2015, a collaborative of law firms and legal services organizations created a Housing Right to Counsel Project, which trains pro bono attorneys to provide legal representation to tenants in eviction cases involving subsidized housing. A year later, the D.C. Council introduced a bill to establish right to counsel projects that would expand representation in eviction cases. In July 2017, the D.C. Council approved the bill and allocated $4.5 million to fund representation in civil cases involving fundamental human needs, including housing. In addition to staffing the Housing Right to Counsel Project, pro bono attorneys have played an important role, including representing indigent clients in housing matters through the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy and Justice Clinic, and providing same-day legal information to pro se parties at the Landlord Tenant Resource Center in D.C. Superior Court.
Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, approximately 24,000 evictions are filed annually, in which only eight percent of tenants are represented, compared to 81 percent of landlords, according to Community Legal Services (CLS). In June 2017, the Philadelphia City Council held a hearing on the right to counsel in housing, resulting in the mayor launching the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project in January 2018 and boosting funding for landlord-tenant reforms, including legal representation in housing court, to $850,000 in July 2018. CLS leads a team of legal services organizations in implementing the Project, including staffing the Landlord Tenant Help Center at the Philadelphia Municipal Court up to 40 hours a week, funding a court navigator to direct litigants through the court process, and staffing a tenant hotline, among other services. Pro bono attorneys conduct intakes and provide limited scope representation to tenants through the Lawyer for the Day program, and take case referrals from the Landlord Tenant Help Center through Philadelphia VIP. Pro bono attorneys also have helped to work on reforms to Philadelphia Municipal Court Procedures and to conduct research on other issues relating to the right to counsel.
Newark. In Essex County (which includes Newark, NJ) there are approximately 40,000 eviction cases annually, in which most landlords are represented, but 99 percent of tenants are unrepresented, according to the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest. In July 2018, the law firm McCarter & English* announced a partnership with the city of Newark creating a pro bono program to represent tenants in housing court. A month later, the City Council approved an ordinance to create a nonprofit to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction whose income is 200 percent of the federal poverty line or less, with a focus initially on seniors, the disabled, and undocumented residents, although the ordinance does not provide funding or details about the nonprofit. Through the McCarter & English program, to be run by a fellow, law firm attorneys will take on pro bono engagements while partnering with legal services organizations to represent low-income tenants in eviction proceedings.
According to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, “Having a lawyer can make the difference between keeping a home or losing it.” When people lose their homes, the adverse ripple effects on their health, education, employment, and the security of their families can be profound. Every individual and family who loses their housing results in social and economic costs for the community, including increased homelessness and use of public shelters and benefits.
The five cities spotlighted here are just some of the locations around the United States where the right to counsel movement is flourishing and where pro bono volunteers are providing critical research, advocacy, and, in some jurisdictions, direct legal representation to fill the gap. To learn more about right to counsel and pro bono, please visit:
- National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, which highlights right to counsel movements across the United States.
- Housing Matters (Pro Bono in Practice) webinar
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