What Happens When the Eviction Bans End?

Last week, a crowd of about 30 people lined up in a single-file, socially distanced line outside the district court in Petersburg, Virginia. Among them was a 31-year-old woman who moved to Petersburg last summer with her 9-year-old son. The woman, who asked to be identified only by her last name, Edwards, was among the very first residents of Virginia to face eviction hearings since that state issued a moratorium on removing renters who’d fallen behind on their rent because of coronavirus-related job loss.

She’d been fleeing danger, Edwards says: An abusive partner forced her and her son to leave her home in North Carolina with almost nothing but what she could carry. But in the year since, she’d found a place to rent in Petersburg near her father and a job with an airline at Richmond International Airport. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and her life turned upside down again. The airline let her go in March; the work she does part-time as a nail stylist also dried up due to the shutdown. She filed for unemployment insurance, but her benefits didn’t arrive until May. And she got behind in her rent.

“I finally got myself situated,” Edwards tells CityLab. “Then this pandemic happens. Now I’m risking being homeless again — not due to the situation I’m in, but because the whole world is in this situation, and the courts are not doing anything to help.”

She says she agreed to pay what she could for the April rent, but she and her landlord argued over the actual payment. Police served her with a notice of eviction on April 21, her birthday. At the time, civil rights advocates were pressing the governor, the courts, and the legislature to extend the eviction moratorium that Virginia, like many other states, passed in the early days of the coronavirus crisis.

Courts in Virginia resumed hearing these cases on May 18. Other courts in Georgia, Ohio, Texas, and 13 other states (including Virginia) have also resumed hearing eviction cases, prompting fears among housing advocates and civil rights attorneys that the worst-case scenario is at hand — a flood of mass evictions during a plague.

As of May 22, 13 courts across Virginia were open and hearing cases. Those courts alone (out of 120 total circuit courts) scheduled nearly 800 eviction cases to be heard between last week and this week, according to Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy for the Virginia Policy Law Center. As more courts open, their dockets are expected to explode. “You can only imagine how many cases will be coming in June and July and August,” Marra says.

When the Petersburg tenant received her eviction notice, she sought help. Kateland Woodcock, an attorney at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, lined up with her outside the court in Petersburg. Woodcock was able to argue for a 60-day continuance of her case, a right to any Virginia tenant who can demonstrate a coronavirus-related income burden under a law passed by the General Assembly in April. The attorney had the paperwork ready. But other tenants in the nearly 100 cases heard in Petersburg on May 20 didn’t have legal representation — or didn’t appear at all, resulting in default judgments.

“I would have probably not even had a place to stay, if I didn’t have a lawyer,” the Petersburg tenant says.

The end of state eviction moratoriums has exposed the limits of the protections for tenants at the local, state and federal level. Under the CARES Act passed by Congress, for example, tenants who live in a property with a federally backed mortgage can’t be evicted. This protection supersedes any expiring state-level eviction moratorium — but only if the tenant knows that the CARES Act applies to their circumstances.

“Those tenants can’t be evicted — they can’t even get a notice of eviction until the end of July,” Marra says. “But there’s nothing put into place in many of these courts to enable a judge to routinely make sure that a landlord is testifying or swearing under oath that his property isn’t covered.”

Most of the eviction cases going forward now predate the coronavirus pandemic, a reflection of the severity of the eviction crisis in what we now call normal times. Harris County, Texas, saw more than 5,500 evictions filed in February alone, a figure that dropped to 845 in March. Many of those tenants have since lost their jobs; probably some have suffered infection or lost family members to Covid-19. Or they live in properties covered by the CARES Act — but those protections don’t apply retroactively.

“We’ve been telling people: You need to pay the rent when you can,” says Mark Grandich, litigation director at Lone Star Legal Aid. “There’s going to be a day of reckoning.”

The looming deluge of evictions involves complicated interactions with the justice system. For example, in Texas, landlords filed some 1,400 cases over the months during which the moratorium was in effect (many of which should not have been filed at all, under the CARES Act). During the interim, Texas only allowed evictions to proceed that involved illegal conduct — a valid concern for landlords, but also a concession to law enforcement, since jails were releasing prisoners and police were reluctant to make arrests.

While landlords whose tenants were accused of violating the law were allowed to proceed with evictions, such circumstances were rare: According to Dana Karni, another attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid, only one landlord across Texas accused a tenant of criminal conduct, and the judge refused to hear the case. On the other hand, the number of landlords processing evictions illegally — by harassing tenants or locking them out — continues apace.

The vanishingly small number of eviction filings associated with criminal behavior suggests that the vast majority of evictions in Texas — and likely elsewhere — are related to nonpayment. This finding weakens a popular argument with landlords that evictions are critical tools for protecting properties or even tenants. Most evictions aren’t emergency evictions, either during the pandemic or before. And most every eviction moratorium provides for some kind of exemption for criminal activity anyway. The CARES Act and various state and local eviction moratoriums were designed to safeguard the millions of renters who have lost their livelihoods to the pandemic. Without enforcement, many tenants are already surrendering to default judgments or vacating properties where they have a right to live.

Eviction protections are proving hard to enforce in court, for a simple reason: Landlords have attorneys; tenants don’t.

“The eviction moratoriums are expiring before federal interventions have arrived,” says Emily Benfer, a professor at Columbia Law School. “Without immediate action, I think we will be facing a housing crisis of unparalleled magnitude.”

Courts are complicating the issue with a patchwork of standards and procedures. Many courts are still deciding how to reopen safely, with some experimenting with teleconferencing or video solutions. Trial-by-Zoom presents a slew of due-process concerns for households that do not have internet access. Tenants and landlords who stand before a video court would be appearing in their own homes, which could invite bias over disparities in living situations. In most states, it’s up to courts to determine how to proceed with hearing civil cases. For now, the best protection available to struggling tenants may be those in Maine, where courts aren’t reopening until August at the earliest.

By June 1, seven more states may begin hearing housing cases: Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Rhode Island. That will bring the number of states with expiring eviction moratoriums to nearly half. Some of those states have a number of standing laws that can help keep tenants in their homes during the crisis — but they only work if those tenants are aware of those rights and are prepared to show up in court to pursue them.

Before the pandemic struck, several cities, including Baltimore and New York, passed laws guaranteeing tenants a right to legal counsel in housing court. In December, a bipartisan pair of U.S. senators introduced the Eviction Crisis Act, with the hopes of guaranteeing a lawyer to any renter in dire straits. That would shift the burden of proof, which now falls disproportionately on renters. Cities that have cemented this right guarantee that tenants can actually exercise the special rights afforded to them during the pandemic.

That’s not most places, though. Nationwide, the coronavirus housing catastrophe is just beginning to pick up momentum. The true eviction cliff could come in August, after the federal $600-per-week boost to unemployment benefits ends. Those benefits are helping tens of millions of households keep up with the rent. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already pledged not to renew these benefits.

For Edwards, the continuance for her eviction hearing will only provide a brief reprieve until July 22, when she’s due back in court. She’s receiving unemployment benefits now, which means she can make good on the overdue May rent. But she says that she will have little left to afford the security deposit and first month’s rent for a new apartment. Her lease expires in July, so even if she isn’t evicted, she feels sure that her landlord won’t let her renew for August.

For now, Edwards is scanning the scant listings for rental properties in Petersburg, worried about how the unlawful detainer filed against her will affect her prospects. After everything she’s endured, she worries that she and her son could wind up homeless.

“My days, really, are horrible,” Edwards says. “I’m worried about the fact that I know I have to move out of this house now, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get another place. My days are full of stress.”

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An Emerging Coronavirus Concern: Eviction

Updated: 2020-03-11

Neil Hutchinson, a 52-year-old stagehand based in Oakland, usually has a busy spring: The Game Developer’s Conference comes to San Francisco in March, Google’s Cloud Next conference comes in April, and Facebook’s big F8 conference comes to San Jose in May. In between, he gets calls to come help with smaller shows and events. As the conferences got canceled or postponed one by one on account of coronavirus concerns, Hutchinson got increasingly worried about paying rent on his apartment. In-person concerts dried up, too. By the end of the season, he expects to lose $10,000 in income.

“If this goes on longer than June, the outlook is pretty bleak,” he said.

For many people like Hutchinson, the low-grade fear of getting the Covid-19 virus has been compounded with an urgent sense of economic anxiety. Under the states of emergency being declared in an increasing number of localities, large events have been canceled, public transit has been less crowded, bar and restaurant workers are losing out on tips and entertainers have had shows closed. In expensive coastal cities, where people can pay more than 30% of their income on housing, missing even one paycheck can mean falling behind on rent. And falling behind can mean getting evicted.

To protect low-wage workers from these ripple effects, two California cities, San Francisco and San Jose, are advancing legislation that would put a moratorium on evictions for people whose wages have been affected by coronavirus-related closures and work stoppages. Other city measures are geared at providing housing for those who are already homeless in the event of a virus outbreak. Already, Singapore and Italy instituted policies to prevent new homelessness during their coronavirus outbreaks.

“There are people who are going to lose income they may have otherwise earned,” said San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, who introduced an eviction moratorium bill on Tuesday. “We want to make sure that if they’re losing income in that situation, they’re not losing housing as well.”

At a time when many West Coast cities are already experiencing a homelessness crisis, the Covid-19 outbreak has put the significance of home into stark relief. People are being advised to stay inside their apartments and houses to prevent the spread of the virus. But for people who don’t have their own shelter — or who may lose it soon — that won’t be an option. Homelessness has already created a public health disaster in some American cities. The worry is that Covid-19 could only compound it.

“In this moment, there’s no reason to believe that homeless people are any more likely to get the coronavirus,” said Quiver Watts, the editor of Street Sheet, a publication on homelessness published by San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. “But obviously, if it were to outbreak at a city level, folks we work with are susceptible.”

Covid-19 is more deadly for people over 60 years old, who have underlying health conditions or who are immuno-compromised already. Nationwide, about half of the unhoused people are older than 50, many of them falling into homelessness for the first time after that point. In tent encampments, people live far closer together than the six-foot radius researchers say Covid-19 can be transmitted over; in shelters, people sleep on the floor head-to-foot. People experiencing homelessness are less likely to have access to medical care, and more likely to have weakened immune systems.

San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo, whose city is home to more than 6,000 unhoused people, said in a press conference that his city’s legislation to keep people from being evicted was a move motivated in part to preserve “public health and public safety.”

On Tuesday, San Jose’s city council approved the measure, and San Francisco’s mayor committed to approving San Francisco’s, too. After the new eviction moratorium rules take effect in both cities, any renter who provides documentation — in the form of pay stubs, for example — that coronavirus-related issues have affected their ability to earn income will have the right to fight an eviction proceeding. The ordinance does not waive rent payments entirely; it just defers them, and prevents landlords from moving forward with unfair oustings. Under Preston’s plan, rent doesn’t need to be paid back until after the mayor-mandated state of the emergency has been lifted. Under Liccardo’s, the moratorium would last 30 days, with the option to extend it each month.

“The reality is a lot of landlords, especially folks who own rent-controlled units in San Francisco, are looking for ways in the law that they can evict long-term tenants who are low-rent,” said Preston. “And those are the folks who are most at risk here. We want to make it clear for these landlords that they can’t use this as an excuse [to evict.]”

California law is especially unforgiving when it comes to non-payment of rent, Preston said, allowing landlords to serve a three-day “pay or quit” notice. After the notice is posted, “if the tenant doesn’t pay in 3 days, the landlord can evict them, even if they come up with the money later,” Preston said.

In San Jose, the mayor’s decisive action was praised by tenants’ rights advocates. “Many of our clients are a minor emergency away from missing their next rent payment,” said Michael Trujillo, a housing-focused staff attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. Those at risk are disproportionately gig, contract and hourly workers, who are unable to work remotely or take sick leave, and for whom a canceled shift or contract can spell disaster.

Trujillo says there are ways the eviction moratoriums could be made even stronger, however. Under Liccardo’s current proposal, tenants would have to let their landlords know they’ll have trouble paying rent on or before the day it’s due, and provide full documentation of the virus-related work outage or closure. “In our experience, it can be really difficult for certain tenants — especially folks that are working in the gig economy and have informal sources of income — to secure some of that documentation,” Trujillo said. “The ideal solution would be an unconditional moratorium: disallowing any eviction for nonpayment of rent during the emergency.”

Councilmember Johnny Khamis told The Mercury News that San Jose’s fix could have negative ripple effects to other city workers: landlords. “I understand the mayor’s concerns, but we also don’t want people to lose their businesses, especially those mom-and-pop landlords, because their obligations to the banks aren’t going away,” Khamis told the paper.

In San Francisco, other resolutions that could protect landlords and renters alike — one preventing foreclosures and another deferring utilities payments — are being drafted, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Globally, similar efforts to protect renters are underway. In Singapore, government agencies took steps to stop the unfair expulsions of people who took state-ordered leaves of absence from work, underwent self-quarantine, or were being discriminated against based on race during the earlier days of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Landlords found to have irresponsibly evicted their residents may face restrictions and even be barred from renting out their flats to foreign work pass-holders in future,” read a joint press release by the ministries of National Development, Education, and Manpower.

And in Italy, where the entire country is under quarantine, the deputy economic minister said all mortgage payments will be suspended.

In Oregon, where governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency due to Covid-19 this week, Portland Tenants United (PTU) has started circulating a petition to ask officials to institute its own eviction pause. It’s been signed by 1,800 people, including Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.

The group’s demands go further than the legislation proposed in San Francisco and San Jose, arguing that the state should bar all evictions for the duration of the crisis. Even if an eviction isn’t precipitated by coronavirus-related income loss, they write, landlords could put more families at risk of contracting it by leaving them out on the street.

“Filling eviction court full of poor, sick people is in no one’s best interest,” said Margot Black, PTU’s co-founder.

To protect those who are already homeless, Liccardo has suspended all homeless encampment sweeps in San Jose, a move the Coalition on Homelessness suggested San Francisco take, too. When people are woken up in the middle of the night and moved forcibly from their makeshift shelters, they can be separated from important medical equipment and lose sleep, which weakens their immune system more.

Officials in King County, Washington, where 22 coronavirus deaths have been reported, bought a motel and plan to house individuals who are sick or potentially infected and who can’t otherwise self-quarantine. And in addition to a $5 million cleaning and staffing effort, which is meant to keep homeless shelters and navigation centers regularly disinfected and running 24/7, San Francisco will make 30 RVs available as “isolation housing” specifically for any unhoused people who come down with the virus.

“The more people are sleeping outside, the greater risk they’ll be at for negative health incomes,” said the Coalition on Homelessness’s Watts. “Not only in moments of crisis but in general, everybody deserves a place they can stay.”

In places where such protections have not been proposed, anxieties remain high. In Buffalo, New York, Richard McGilvray has no sick leave or paid time off, and is about to move into a new apartment with his girlfriend, who’s pregnant with her first child. Coronavirus cases haven’t yet been documented in Buffalo, but fear is spreading faster. “I work in residential property management, and if I were to come down with the sickness, I’d be looking at 14 days with no paid time off,” he said in an email. “A two-week stint without pay could potentially ruin our financial stability — as both myself and my girlfriend are in positions where we cannot work from home.”

Because cities in New York are preempted from legislating on evictions, any moratorium would have to come from the state.

Three years ago, Hutchinson, the stage-hand, says he was evicted from his San Francisco home after a rent increase of more than 300 percent, and has been moving from lease to lease ever since. Since he lives in Oakland, this eviction moratorium won’t cover him.

“The income inequality in this area, that’s a disaster in itself,” he said. “We could have used this a long time ago.”

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Landlords Are Using Next-Generation Eviction Tech

In the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game between landlords and renters, the latter have been getting the upper hand in several cities. Laws that guarantee a lawyer to people facing eviction have found traction in Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and other cities. Last year, New York State passed a suite of bills that one lawmaker in Albany called “the strongest tenant protections in history.”

In response, landlords are shifting their priorities from booting tenants to squeezing them for the rent as efficiently as possible. And landlords with large portfolios of hundreds or thousands of units are turning to technology to give them an edge. ClickNotices — a dashboard for tracking rents, from receipt through delinquency and all the way to eviction — is part of a new generation of online “delinquency management platforms” that can automate some of the unhappier chores of landlording.

Through a shared dashboard, property owners and their agents are able to prepare and deliver notices for late rents; corporate landlords can generate hundreds of late notices at once. With a few keystrokes, their lawyers can spit out all the necessary legal boilerplate language for a lawsuit. In some jurisdictions, the landlords can even bring the suits themselves.

Bringing such frictionlessness to the fraught world of landlord-tenant transactions has a number of positive effects, the company says: Namely, it facilitates more communication between landlords and tenants, which means more opportunities to settle a dispute before lawyers get involved. But some tenant advocates worry that this kind of software accelerates disagreements to the legal arena, where landlords — especially large or institutional landlords — enjoy a huge advantage.

For landlords, one-click-eviction software might be a novel response to new tenant protections. In New York City, for example, evictions have fallen 41% since 2013, in large part thanks to the city’s first-in-the-nation law guaranteeing tenants the right to eviction counsel.

“Right now, because of the laws, eviction is not something that benefits anybody,” says Craig T. Gambardella, a partner with Kucker Marino Winiarsky & Bittens, a firm that focuses on real estate law in New York. “It used to be, pursuant to the old law, that if you got an eviction from a tenant or a vacancy from a tenant in a rent-stabilized apartment, you were able to increase the rent 20% off the bat.”

That’s no longer possible in New York, where the so-called vacancy bonus was abolished, among other incentives, by the landmark package of protections passed by the state last year. “A lot of those increases have gone by the wayside,” Gambardella says. “In New York, the name of the game is streamlining your rent efficiency.”

Landlords with hundreds or thousands of properties under their charge are facing a wave of new regulations in progressive states. In New York, the period of time before a landlord can likely take a tenant to court over delinquent rent has jumped from about two weeks to roughly six weeks. Renters get more time between notices, too, and more time to settle up.

Investors have taken notice, too. Bloomberg reported in January that apartment building sales fell 40% in New York City. Building owners are convinced that it’s now too difficult to raise rents, even to recoup the costs of maintenance or improvements. So investors are steering clear of rent-regulated units, instead pursuing market-rate buildings at higher prices, analysts say. These changes — above all the repeal of vacancy decontrol and the vacancy bonus — are even prompting some landlords to hold units vacant.

Programs such as ClickNotices represent an alternative to holding out for Albany to reverse course. “Our goal is not to get tenants into court,” says the company’s CEO, Matt Barbieri. “That’s the last resort in terms of collecting rent.”

A ClickNotices dashboard for managing delinquent rental properties. (ClickNotices)

ClickNotices got its start in 2010 as a paper-processing company for failure-to-pay-rent actions in Maryland. Founder Toyin Bello launched ClickNotices as an answer to his own frustrations managing rental properties in Baltimore. As the company grew, its leaders came to realize that small and large landlords alike struggle with transparency and compliance. ClickNotices plugs into all the accounting programs used by big landlords — Entrata, MRI, Yardi, RealPage, and others. But what distinguishes the program is its ability to generate pre- and post-eviction litigation paperwork.  

Since 2016, when the founders sought Series A funding, the company has expanded: ClickNotices now operates in 13 states, mostly on the East Coast. Lawmakers in coastal states are taking up tenant protections rapidly, which is one reason that ClickNotices has repositioned itself as a tenant-engagement platform, as Barbiari says.

Tenant advocates say that programs such as ClickNotices or eWrit Filings, another delinquency management software company, are essentially helping landlords funnel tenants into rent court, regardless of the merits of the case. Large or institutional landlords might file thousands of late-rent notices per month, and when they go to court, it’s largely on the landlord’s say-so, according to Matthew Vocci, a founding member of Santoni, Vocci & Ortega, a firm that represents tenants and consumers.

“The reality is that when you file thousands of these, most of them are going to go through by default,” Vocci says. “The court is used as an arm of the landlord to collect. This is mass filing on just whatever information was plugged into the spreadsheet.”

ClickNotices allows landlords and their lawyers to generate pre- and post-eviction litigation paperwork from a single dashboard. (ClickNotices)

In Maryland, state law doesn’t require a landlord to hire a lawyer to represent a claim before rent court, so a filing company (such as ClickNotices) can send an agent instead. They’re rarely lawyers, Vocci says. In certain jurisdictions, they might appear before rent court three or four times a week on behalf of their clients. Vocci calls filing agents “super users” in Baltimore rent court; they sit where the police usually sit in traffic court. “Typically what they have is spreadsheets with names and how much they purportedly owe, and that’s about it,” Vocci says.

Mass filings shift the burden of proof onto tenants, who do not have access to a courthouse regular to represent them. Lawmakers are working to tilt the scales. New York City is expanding its successful eviction counsel pilot program, and Detroit, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Los Angeles and several other cities plan to follow suit.

Barbieri says that communicating with tenants, not hauling them to court, is the goal at ClickNotices. There’s hardly any communication between large property managers and tenants between the first of the month and the sixth, mostly because corporate landlords don’t go banging on doors and shouting about the rent. In Maryland, where ClickNotices is headquartered, there’s no notice requirement at all: The first time a tenant finds out there’s a problem might be when the sheriff tacks up a notice.

This is the old way of doing things, Barbieri says. ClickNotices offers different “baskets” of options for engaging tenants: automated texts, emails, and the like. Barbieri says that his company has worked to educate his clients about the value proposition in asking tenants why the rent is late. “We are all for, from a communication aspect, additional notice requirements,” Barbieri says. “We were on the early edge of those tenant-friendly laws.”

More states are setting stricter requirements for serving notices for appearances before rent court, such as first-class or certified mail or private servicers. That’s just one front in the new class of tenant protections coming online. As the company expands, ClickNotices is adding attorneys to provide more court services and guarantee compliance. The goal is still to get people to pay the rent.

But when notifications don’t work, delinquency management programs help landlords pivot to court action with the click of a mouse. Even if eviction is no longer the explicit goal as jurisdictions make evictions more difficult, the threat still does the same job.

“I went back and pulled some articles in the ‘70s about how rent court is being used as a collection arm for the landlords. It’s certainly easier to file these things when you have software on the backend,” Vocci says. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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The Right to Eviction Counsel Is Gaining Momentum

Back in 2017, New York City passed a law to guarantee free legal representation to low-income residents facing eviction. The first of its kind in the nation, the law established a standard for due process for vulnerable families with an aim to level an unfair playing field in housing court.

While landlords in New York appear with counsel in more than 90 percent of eviction proceedings, tenants were represented by attorneys in just 1 percent of cases in 2013. The new law is working: Over the last quarter, more than 32 percent of tenants facing eviction brought lawyers to their hearings, and in 2018, evictions were down by 5 percent from the year before.    

“Housing court was literally like David v. Goliath,” says Steven Banks, commissioner for New York City’s Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services.

The right to counsel in eviction cases is a movement that’s gaining momentum. Today, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce that the law is expanding to five new neighborhoods, with full implementation in sight by 2022. Other cities and at least one state are drafting their own right-to-counsel laws. And on Thursday, a bipartisan pair of senators, Colorado Democrat (and 2020 presidential aspirant) Michael Bennet and Ohio Republican Rob Portman, introduced the Eviction Crisis Act, a law that would support legal services nationwide.

“No person should lose their home because they cannot afford a lawyer, and New York City is the first city in the country to make this a reality,” de Blasio tells CityLab. “Over 350,000 New Yorkers have received free legal assistance so far, setting us on the course to be the fairest big city in America.”

The eviction crisis is national in its scope. According to Matthew Desmond, the author of the definitive 2016 book Evicted, more than 2 million eviction filings are issued every year, which exceeds the number of foreclosures at the height of the foreclosure crisis. Evictions are the engine of the cycle of poverty, fueled by a shortage of affordable homes everywhere and the legacy of racial discrimination built into the pattern of our neighborhoods.

Tenants who lack access to legal representation have very little chance of winning a case in housing court, even when the facts are on their side. Tenants frequently face eviction when they’ve paid rent but landlords claim that they haven’t, for example. For low-income families, coming up with proof that passes court muster may be a challenge. And in New York, rent increases that cause a family to face eviction may often be illegal. “On their own, tenants can’t establish that the rent is unlawful, that conditions are violations, or that the rent was actually paid,” Banks says.

New York City’s new law would expand the right to an attorney in eviction cases to Morris Heights in the Bronx, East New York in Brooklyn, East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, and Far Rockaway in Queens. Overall, evictions have declined by 30 percent from 2013 to 2018.

The movement has gained traction in San Francisco and Philadelphia, cities that have passed legislation for similar protections. Other cities, including Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C., have established programs to provide legal representation to low-income households. Boston is looking at a bill of its own, but Massachusetts could beat Mayor Marty Walsh to the punch by passing a statewide right to counsel law. Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles—the idea is catching on.

Arguably, cities can’t afford not to pass right-to-counsel laws. New York’s law, for example, will cost $166 million to fully implement across all five boroughs. But putting families out on the street creates costs that are borne by the entire city. It’s hard to put a cost savings figure on keeping roofs over people’s heads, but evictions touch every corner of a local economy, from social services to productivity to healthcare.  

While major metro areas where the eviction crisis affects the greatest number of renters are taking up the mantle of right-to-counsel laws, there’s still room, and need, for Congress to act. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Place to Prosper Act would guarantee a right to an attorney in eviction proceedings nationwide, a boon especially to rural residents or renters in conservative states that won’t see new tenant rights any time soon. For housing advocates, that’s the ultimate goal, but AOC’s suite of social justice protections is still a ways off.

The Eviction Crisis Act proposed by Bennet and Portman has bipartisan support, on the other hand. It stops short of a sweeping right to counsel, but would benefit renters everywhere in critical ways. The bill would establish a Federal Advisory Committee on Eviction Research and create a national database to track evictions, which would help local authorities monitor the toll of evictions and tailor better legislation to help prevent them. The Eviction Crisis Act would boost those local efforts by increasing funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a public-private partnership that helps to provide legal aid for low-income Americans. Finally, the bill would set new standards for fairness and transparency with regard to how consumer reporting agencies generate tenant screening reports.

Many renters who face eviction owe less than $600—an insignificant sum considering the enduring havoc the process plays in the lives of those who lose their homes. Guaranteeing tenants a right to counsel will raise the cost of pursuing eviction for landlords: These won’t be open-and-shut cases in which only the property owners have the lawyers.

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