The latest threat to US landlords? Cities are arming tenants with lawyers

Free counsel is hard to implement, but so far appears effective at reducing evictions

Dec.December 28, 2019 12:00 PM
New York State's Attorney General Letitia James joins a press conference to support rent controlled tenants who have been threatened with eviction (Credit: Getty Images)

New York State’s Attorney General Letitia James joins a press conference to support rent controlled tenants who have been threatened with eviction (Credit: Getty Images)

Half a dozen U.S. cities plan to provide tenants free legal counsel in eviction cases in an effort to reduce evictions and prevent homelessness.

The programs are expected to be costly and challenging to implement, but advocates contend they will help keep people from becoming homeless and entering the shelter system, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The cities include San Francisco, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and Santa Monica. All but San Francisco limit assistance to tenants making around minimum wage. The number of people experiencing homelessness across the U.S. has trended upward over the last several years as rents have generally increased.

Most cities passed legislation to that effect last year. New York was the first city to guarantee the right to legal counsel in eviction cases about two years ago and so far the program, implemented by zip code, appears to be bringing down evictions.

From 2017 to 2018, evictions declined five times faster in those zip codes where tenants have the right to representation than those that didn’t, according to the nonprofit group Community Service Society.

In New York, landlords now have to wait 14 days to file an eviction suit after giving a tenant notice. Before, that was just three days. Overall, eviction cases involving nonpayment of rent have decreased by more than 45 percent since the law took effect in June.

The uptick in cases since the program was implemented has also put strain on the courts. Housing courts are physically crowded with lawyers and their clients and the system struggles to expeditiously process cases.

Some landlords argue that the money spent to provide representation to tenants would be more effectively spent providing temporary housing subsidies to tenants at risk of eviction. [WSJ]Dennis Lynch

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