In 2013, Randy Dillard was living with his four sons and a daughter in an apartment at 198th Street and Bainbridge in the Bronx. The windows were broken; mold and mildew streaked the walls. In the winter, Dillard’s family had to boil water on the stove to bathe; there was no heat or hot water. When the New York City Housing Authority conducted an inspection of the apartment on behalf of Section 8, the federal rent assistance program that financed Dillard’s rental, the unit failed the test, and Section 8 stopped paying Dillard’s landlord, demanding that he make repairs. That winter, Dillard was hospitalized for two months with a bout of emphysema; when he came out, he was served with eviction papers for nonpayment of rent.
“I stood in the middle of my hallway looking around my apartment thinking: What am I going to do with my stuff?” Dillard tells Fast Company. “I told myself: I’m going to end up homeless. I’m going to wind up in a shelter.”
Dillard got word of a Bronx organization called Part of the Solution (POTS), which connects people in crisis with resources to help. Those in need of food can eat in the community dining hall, and for people like Dillard, facing housing court, there’s a legal clinic. Through the clinic, Dillard met an attorney who successfully battled his landlord’s claims on the grounds that he’d neglected his duties to provide repairs and humane living standards for Dillard and his family. The attorney also got Dillard’s Section 8 status, which was taken away while he was in the hospital, reinstated.
When Dillard’s trial began in 2013, walking into housing court with legal representation as a tenant facing eviction was almost unheard of. Nationally, the statistics go something like this: 90% of landlords are represented by an attorney; 90% of tenants are not. It’s not often that a simple set of data points tell such a clear story, but in housing court, it’s impossible not to look at these numbers and understand how the scales are almost always tipped in favor of the landlords. Tenants like Dillard who have been served with eviction papers, says John Pollock, staff attorney for the Public Justice Center and coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, show up to court, face a brief meeting with the landlord’s attorney in which they agree to a set of stringent terms–to vacate a property by a certain date, to pay outstanding fees in full by another–with no awareness of any recourse they might have to fight back.
But over the past year, a handful of cities have introduced efforts to rectify this imbalance by expanding the right to counsel, usually just applicable to criminal court, to also include eviction cases. In criminal cases, a defendant’s right to counsel is guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment; in civil cases, that mandate does not apply, even though, as Beth Harrison, supervising attorney for the Housing Law unit of the Legal Aid Society for the District of Columbia tells Fast Company, “civil cases can have such dire consequences for individuals–the effect that eviction can have on employment, stability, educational outcomes, and health outcomes is devastating.” Dillard saw, during his eviction proceeding, his daughter’s high school grade average fall from a B to a D, and one of his sons get arrested. Though he held himself together for his children’s sake, he recalls the two and a half years of uncertainty one of the most stressful times of his life.
Through POTS, which secured him an attorney, Dillard became involved with Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) as a tenants’ rights activist. CASA is part of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, which, since its founding in 2014, has been advocating for guaranteed representation for all defendants in eviction cases across the city. Dillard recalls securing support from 42 community boards, and hosting forums for hundreds of people to advance their policy recommendations. City Hall listened: On August 11, mayor Bill de Blasio signed the country’s first civil right to counsel bill into law, committing $155 million over the course of five years toward expanding legal representation by paying lawyers to take up low-income eviction cases.
New York City’s law guarantees counsel to any low-income tenant earning 200% of the federal poverty level or less. Previously, the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition had successfully lobbied the city to increase public funding available to low-income tenants facing eviction; their efforts have reduced evictions by 24% since 2014. But the new law codifies and guarantees representation for all low-income tenants facing eviction–the housing-court equivalent of the Gideon v. Wainwright ruling that mandates right to counsel in criminal cases at the federal level–and aims to prove that civil right to counsel legislation is a viable path for other cities to follow. The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition estimates that expanded representation will save the city and taxpayers a collective $320 million per year in costs ranging from the price of sheltering people rendered temporarily homeless, to welfare coverage for jobs lost due to evictions, and act as a defense against rampant gentrification and displacement in rapidly evolving cities.
Until recently, Pollock says, the issue of right to counsel in civil cases has been something handled at the state level. But with New York City, and others like Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. following quickly behind in enacting or proposing similar bills, “cities are taking the lead on this issue,” he adds.
“There’s a recognition that cities are where housing issues are most extreme–when de Blasio was elected mayor, for instance, he talked a lot about ending homelessness, and realized that providing right to counsel in eviction cases was one of the ways to do that.” When San Francisco ran a pilot program from 2012 to 2013 through the Justice & Diversity Center of the local Bar Association, the city provided pro-bono attorneys to 692 families; the 609 cases in which the JDC was able to prevent eviction–and as a result, temporary homelessness–saved the city over $1 million in shelter costs over the course of 60 days, a sum far less than the around $500,000 paid out in lawyer fees through the pilot.
Without an attorney, Harrison says, tenants show up to court and have to negotiate with the landlord and his or her attorney on their own, in a process that looks less like a negotiation and more like coercion. “They sign a form agreeing to certain terms, and are at immediate risk of eviction if they don’t comply with the letter with those terms,” Harrison says. But legal representation for the tenant, she adds, “slows down the process” and multiplies the time spent on a case by around six, allowing the tenant to formulate and articulate an argument against the landlord’s claims.
In Dillard’s case, for example, his attorney was able to argue against his eviction for nonpayment of rent by showing that it was, in fact, Section 8, not Dillard, who ceased paying the landlord, and for the legitimate reason that the landlord had not kept his property up to acceptable living standards. Even if an attorney is not able to craft a compelling case against eviction, they are often able to negotiate on behalf of the tenant for a longer time frame before the eviction takes effect, to allow the tenant time to find a new home and avoid temporary homelessness, which is rampant in quickly developing cities.
By failing to provide counsel in eviction hearings, cities are reinforcing the socioeconomic forces that are driving displacement. “This really comes down to a matter of income,” Harrison says. In D.C., where Harrison works, attorneys will charge anywhere from $150 dollars an hour to well over $1,000. Even at the lowest end of that spectrum, just five hours of counsel will surpass monthly rent for a low-income tenant. The D.C. Right to Counsel Initiative, launched in 2013 in partnership with Legal Aid, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center and the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, monitors low-income eviction cases as they come in, randomly selects a number of them that they can take on, and assigns a lawyer to the tenant to litigate the case. Those tenants who were assigned lawyers were six times less likely to be evicted. In The Washington Post, D.C. council members Charles Allen, Kenyan R. McDuffie, and Mary M. Cheh, who have this year introduced legislation to expand that program, write: “For a city struggling to fight serious housing challenges, that’s an outcome we desperately need.”
In cities like San Francisco, D.C., and New York, where displacement and homelessness have reached crisis levels, right to counsel, Pollock says, “is essential to stop the bleeding” that results from gentrification, but it’s not enough to solve the whole issue. “To some degree, the problem of gentrification as a whole is far less under control than the problem of right to counsel,” Pollock says. Expanding representation for tenants in eviction hearings is away to level the legal playing field in one corner of the massive, changing urban landscape. “That’s why you see efforts like New York City’s being driven by tenants,” Pollock says. “They recognize that there are multiple problems to address, and this is a way to tackle one aspect.”