Providing legal help to tenants shows promising results
New York City last year became the first municipality in the country to enact a law giving low-income tenants facing eviction the right to free legal counsel. So far, the results have been promising.
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New York City last year became the first municipality in the country to enact a law giving low-income tenants facing eviction the right to free legal counsel.
So far, the results have been promising.
In the first year the law has been in place, nearly 85 percent of tenants represented by attorneys were able to stave off evictions and remain in their homes, according to city data.
Tenant advocates point to such outcomes to urge that right-to-counsel laws be adopted in other places.
The Hawaii eviction report set to be released Monday by the nonprofit Lawyers for Equal Justice stops short of recommending such legislation, but it suggests other ways to provide more representation for residents facing evictions here.
The study found that about nine of every 10 Hawaii eviction lawsuits over the past decade ended in tenants losing their homes, and most tenants did not have lawyers to help them navigate a system widely considered to be confusing for lay people.
“These people have no clue what’s going on and they’re just being shuffled through the system,” said Victor Geminiani, executive director of the nonprofit group and one of the report’s authors.
John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, said the huge imbalance in representation in Hawaii — similar to what is found elsewhere — means tenants are not being well served when going up against landlords in court.
“Without an advocate on the other side, judges can’t point out what’s wrong,” Pollock said. “That’s not their job.”
But David Chee, an attorney who represents Hawaii landlords, said the courts ensure the process is fair. “The judges go out of their way to make sure the tenant doesn’t get run over,” he said.
Since New York adopted its right-to-counsel law, only one other city, San Francisco, has passed a similar statute. Other jurisdictions are considering their own laws or plowing more money into programs that provide legal representation for low-income tenants.
Those efforts are driven by studies showing that cities can save money associated with evictions and homelessness by putting more funds into helping tenants.
A study last month by the Philadelphia Bar Association said low-income tenants are more likely to stay in their homes, delay evictions or get more favorable terms if they have representation.
The bar estimated the city could save about $45 million annually by investing $3.5 million to provide lawyers for tenants.
Maya Brennan, senior policy associate at the Urban Institute, said putting more money into providing representation has produced some promising results.
“What we’ve seen in the very limited research available is that it really can be quite effective in helping people stay in their homes,” Brennan said. “But there’s not enough research to know if that’s something about that particular jurisdiction or that particular program.”
Even if right-to-counsel efforts produced better tenant outcomes, the savings that result would be spread across many agencies, including criminal justice, social services and school systems, according to Brennan. That being said, a governor or mayor who is able to see the big picture and how such a program would benefit the entire community — rather than just a single entity — would be the most effective advocate, she added.
“You’ve got to find that holistic thinker who is willing to say that (government) is not divided into these different systems and focus instead on what people need,” Brennan said.