WASHINGTON (AP) – As the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic stretch to 2021, millions of U.S. tenants are trying to have the option of showing up in housing court not to be evicted. But unlike their landlords, only a small fraction of it will be flanked by a lawyer.
Less than ten cities and counties nationwide guarantee tenants the right to a lawyer in domestic disputes, and for people who are struggling to get by, a lawyer can exceed their capacity and cause many people to skip their court hearings or walk into the knowledgeable that they have little chance. Unlike criminal cases, a lawyer will not be hired if someone cannot afford it. Legal aid organizations and pro bono advocates represent many tenants annually, but the need exceeds what they can handle.
While housing advocates have mainly insisted on rent relief from the government, experts also expect more cities to join the movement to give tenants the right to a lawyer.
“The push for legal advice has preceded the pandemic, but it is particularly sharp and particularly urgent in light of the pandemic, given the overall precariousness that tenants face,” said Gretchen Purser, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University. specializing in housing, homelessness and urban poverty.
She said legal representation “would be one of the most important things groups across the country can strive for.”
Many people are owed rent months ago because they lost their jobs or faced increasing medical bills during the health crisis. According to estimates by global investment bank and consulting firm Stout, tenants will owe as much as $ 34 billion by January. An estimated 23 million people are at risk of being evicted.
The federal resource package COVID-19 includes $ 25 billion in rental assistance and an extension of a moratorium on evacuation until January.
The moratorium is what Zachary Kettering thought to protect him when he lost two jobs during the pandemic, fell into arrears and received a notice in October to vacate his one-bedroom apartment in the McKinney suburb of Dallas.
But he fell victim to a reservation that home lawyers warned against: The order of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not a moratorium; tenants must sign a declaration and provide a copy to their landlord. In early December, Kettering, a veteran with disabilities, owed $ 6,900 rent and a constable knocked on his door with an eviction report.
A friend lent him the money to cover his debt, and he agreed to sign a document from his landlord in which he said he would not renew his lease in February in return.
“I only accept what they wanted,” says Kettering, 33, who is now raising money. ‘It looks like you’re playing a game, and one of those involved does not know the rules of the game. And the stakes are very high, to the point that you, as you will be homeless, will not play. ”
The federal right to relief also includes $ 20 million in legal aid for tenants.
In Baltimore, only 1% of tenants are legally represented in eviction cases, compared to 96% of landlords. But this month, Maryland’s largest city became the newest U.S. jurisdiction to grant tenants a right to advice in those cases. A Stout report estimates that 92% of tenants represented by attorneys in Baltimore would avoid leaving their homes.
The new ordinance requires the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development to employ non-profit legal organizations and ask for funding to spread the word and educate tenants. This gives the city four years to fully implement the requirements.
Attorney Matthew Hill at the Public Justice Center, which is campaigning for the new ordinance, said Baltimore could withdraw from general funds and federal funds to cover the cost of the program. He said a measure proposing the right to advice would also be introduced in the Maryland Legislature, which would potentially make state funds available for the Baltimore effort.
“It’s really supposed to level the playing field and really give tenants access, because the eviction court is often just about evictions, but tenants have a lot of defenses,” Hill said, including whether the place is livable and whether landlords are licensed. is. “We therefore want to try to turn the eviction court into a housing court and make sure that we enforce tenants’ rights to safe, stable, healthy housing. ‘
The Stout report estimates that an investment of $ 5.7 million a year to obtain legal representation for tenants in Baltimore would result in savings of $ 35.6 million for the city and state on homeless shelters, Medicaid spending, school funding and foster care costs.
In 2017, New York became the first American city to guarantee the right to a lawyer in the housing court. Between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 86% of tenants represented by attorneys were able to stay in their homes, according to a city report released this fall.
Other cities with similar laws include San Francisco, Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey.
Prior to the pandemic, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, approximately 300,000 evictions were filed in an average month in the United States. A patch of local and state guidelines, combined with the federal moratorium, provides some protection for people who cannot pay rent. But in some places, including cities in South Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Virginia, tenants are losing their homes.
Pablo Estupiñan, interim co-ordinator of the Law on Council NYC coalition, said eviction documents in New York have declined since the legal advice ordinance went into effect three years ago. But he said landlords’ lawyers have increased pressure on tenants and sometimes people choose to leave because they may not know their rights.
‘Because of the right to advice, we’ve seen landlords change their tactics, and we’ve definitely heard from members of the community that landlords are threatening them and said,’ If you get a lawyer to represent you, I will. ‘fight your case harder and do not give you a fair settlement,’ Estupiñan said.