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Legal assistance for at-risk renters

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Legal assistance for at-risk renters

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Overview

Legal assistance for at-risk renters is provided by legal service organizations that, in some cases, are supported by local jurisdictions, among other funders.

Legal assistance organizations provide legal advice and representation to tenants who are facing eviction or dealing with other serious housing issues, such as landlord harassment, fair housing discrimination, or hazardous conditions. These organizations can also help tenants understand their rights and advocate more effectively for themselves when reviewing a lease, requesting necessary maintenance, and in other situations. Some jurisdictions, including New York City, Philadelphia, Newark, and San Francisco have recently implemented programs that expand access to counsel for tenants, and others are debating creating such programs.

Approach

Localities interested in helping at-risk tenants can provide funding to organizations that provide free legal services to low-income renters. Legal service organizations may address a range of housing-related matters, but eviction prevention is often a primary focus. Assistance may come in the form of free representation, counseling or assistance via a hotline or drop-in center, as well as resource guides provided by legal rights organizations.

The level of services provided varies from program to program. Some programs only provide full representation, believing that full representation is the most effective and responsible way to serve clients. To help a larger number of eligible tenants, programs may instead choose to provide less intensive services, such as legal advice or help with a portion of a case (unbundled legal services).

In light of growing concerns about displacement, a number of jurisdictions are considering funding expanded access to counsel (i.e., making a commitment to fund legal services) or creating a legal right to counsel. In 2017, New York City became the first city in the country to provide universal access to counsel  for income-qualified tenants facing eviction (whose incomes are below 200 percent of the federal poverty line). Since New York City’s Universal Access to Counsel program became law, other cities have passed similar laws, including Newark, Philadelphia, Santa Monica, San Francisco, and Boulder. Programs that create a right to counsel or provide access to counsel for a large number of tenants facing eviction will help level the playing field in eviction proceedings, where landlords are usually represented by counsel because they can afford it and low-income tenants cannot. These programs may also result in cost savings for localities if, for example, they prevent entry into homeless shelters or use of other social services. But, programs like Universal Access to Counsel come with large price tags— in 2021, the Department of Social Services budget for tenant legal services in New York City was $136 million.

Coverage

Localities may choose to fund services provided citywide or for residents of a particular set of neighborhoods or zip codes. Localities may target or limit services to neighborhoods with high rates of evictions or neighborhoods that are more likely than others to have residents entering homeless shelters.

Program coverage may also be limited to certain types of cases–for example, cases involving nonpayment of rent.

Eligibility

Legal services programs typically serve low-income tenants and will screen prospective clients for income and asset eligibility. If not all income-tenants are entitled to counsel, programs may also screen clients based on the difference that legal representation will make in their cases.

Examples

San Francisco, California passed a law in 2018 ensuring that all residential tenants facing eviction would have the right to full legal defense. The Tenant Right to Counsel program (TRC) established by that law funds legal representation for renters facing eviction, rental assistance to eligible tenants, coordination of mandatory settlement conferences, and other services and activities. 

Through the National Coalition for a Civil Right to CounselNewark, New Jersey became the third city to enact right to counsel for tenants facing evictions when it established the Office of Tenant Legal Services (OTLS) in 2019. Services are limited to tenants facing eviction who have a gross income at or below 200% of the Federal poverty level. 

In 2017, New York City committed to pay for legal representation in housing court for all tenants who are facing wrongful eviction and have incomes below 200% of the poverty line.

Los Angeles lists development of a tenants’ “Right to Counsel” ordinance as a strategy it intends to pursue in its recently released Assessment of Fair Housing: Goals and Strategies Section. More information on the ordinance is available on p.12 of the assessment.

In 2017, Washington D.C. funded expanded access to counsel in eviction cases.

Philadelphia became the seventh city to provide legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction in two zip codes. The city’s Right to Counsel program was launched with funds from the Eviction Diversion program established during the Covid-19 Pandemic. 

Implementing New York City’s Universal Access to Counsel Program: Lessons for Other Jurisdictions, NYU Furman Center, December 2018 – In 2017, New York City enacted the first legislation in the country providing legal representation for all income-eligible tenants facing eviction. NYU Furman Center researchers closely observed the UAC program’s launch, conducting scores of interviews with key stakeholders including tenants, judges, legal services lawyers, landlords’ attorneys, tenant advocates and organizers, and court personnel.

Related resources

  • The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel is a coalition of groups that advocates for “a right to counsel for low-income people in civil cases that involve basic human needs such as shelter, safety, sustenance, health, and child custody.” Its website provides resources and tracks legislative developments across the country.
  • The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition advocated for the Universal Access to Counsel bill in New York City and is monitoring implementation of the law.
  • This paper describes a number of local policies aimed at preserving affordable housing and preventing tenant displacement as neighborhoods gentrify, including legal assistance for tenants. Jessica Yager, Luke Herrine, and Nadia Mian. Gentrification Response: A Survey of Strategies to Maintain Neighborhood Economic Diversity, NYU Furman Center, October 2016.
  • In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Bar Association began a pilot program to provide free legal services to low-income tenants in specific zip codes. The 2017 report calculates that approximately 3,196 additional tenants could have avoided disruptive displacement arising from eviction if they had been represented.
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