Better Housing Options, Better Legal Advice Could Turn Eviction Tide

Imagine for a moment that you hear a knock at your front door. The children are inside playing, a pot of stew is simmering on the stove and a stack of bills sits unpaid on the table.

You open the door, and a burst of winter chills your front foyer. Pinned to that door is an eviction notice — and then the clock starts ticking.

Still burdened with past-due bills, you have to find a new home.

Millions of Americans face this reality every year. Confronted with eviction and the potential of finding their possessions tossed into the street or confiscated, many tenants — often unaware that free financial and legal assistance is likely available — simply leave.

Preliminary research from the Neighborhood Law Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Law School shows that the number of housing evictions in just seven states totals 400,000 per year. Extrapolating from these numbers, it’s likely that millions of people are being forced to live on the streets, to double up with friends or family or to seek out already crowded shelters. They can find themselves far away from their jobs and children’s schools, upending lives that in many cases were already in crisis.

“Evictions carry a stigma,” writes Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard University. “Many landlords will not rent to persons who have been evicted, and an eviction can also ban a person from affordable housing programs.”

The damage extends even further, he noted, as many evictions end up “stripping them of the few assets they had.”

Desmond’s comments came in an issue brief for the MacArthur Foundation that examined the impact of evictions on black women in Milwaukee. His research showed that though black women make up nearly 10% of Milwaukee’s population, they account for 30% of the city’s evictions.

Women are more likely than men to be evicted for a variety of reasons. One, they often have lower incomes, which makes it more difficult to pay rent. They’re also more likely to have children living with them, which can increase the risk of eviction, according to Desmond.

Greater scrutiny of living conditions, for example, is more likely when children live in an apartment. Expenses related to childcare can also be a factor, as they put additional pressures on already tight budgets. Men are also less likely to be evicted because they are more likely to contest the eviction, whereas women have been found more likely to simply comply.

Yet no federal laws protect against unfair eviction, said Marcia Rosen, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. Rosen says comprehensive laws that could reduce evictions include:

  • Ordinances that spell out the limited conditions which would allow a landlord to evict a tenant, such as failing to pay rent, habitual late payment of rent and breach of a rental agreement or lease.
  • A right to counsel. Desmond’s research found that about 90% of landlords have counsel, while only 10% of evicted tenants do. A right to legal representation is guaranteed in criminal cases, but not so in civil cases — although some cities and states are beginning to pass laws to change that.
  • Extending periods between eviction notice and actual eviction. “A longer time frame for leaving can make the difference between finding another place to live and landing in a shelter,” said John Pollock, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore., The center advocates against laws and policies that can increase poverty, injustice and discrimination.

 “These initiatives could all reduce eviction and mitigate some of the harm that eviction is wreaking on tenants,” Rosen says.

The right to counsel in particular “can be more help than providing other types of assistance,” adds Pollock.

Several U.S. cities have launched pilot programs to evaluate the effectiveness of providing tenants facing eviction with attorneys:

  • San Francisco passed a right to civil counsel ordinance and set upon a pilot program by the San Francisco Bar Association that paired several hundred tenants facing eviction with pro bono attorneys. An assessment of the program, which ended two years ago, found that start-to-finish representation “increases the likelihood that a tenant will be able to stay in their home.”
  • The Boston Bar Association initiated a right to counsel for evicted tenants pilot program in two courts several years ago. They were able to compare full-scope representation with more limited assistance. The program in Quincy, Mass., found that when compared with the control group of tenants (who had limited representation), the full assistance tenants “fared…twice as well in terms of retaining possession, and almost five times as well in terms of rent waived and monetary awards.” According to the bar association’s final report, released in 2012, “the findings of both pilot studies confirm that extensive assistance from lawyers is essential to helping tenants preserve their housing and avoid the potential for homelessness.” Massachusetts initiated new pilot programs in 2013 to track whether people who were evicted then became homeless and to determine what training pro bono attorneys need to handle eviction cases.
  • In New York City, pending legislation would provide free legal counsel to tenants facing eviction, but late last year the city’s independent budget office released a report showing that such a measure would cost as much as $200 million annually and would save only $143 million in homeless shelter costs. In respond, three professors at law schools in New York City sent a letter to the budget office pointing out additional costs savings related to preventing homelessness, including fewer visits to emergency rooms; less need for police and prison services for evicted tenants; and less funding needed for welfare benefits for people lose their job because of eviction.

There’s also the matter of housing costs. While the pending bills and ongoing pilot programs are likely to increase representation — and stable housing — for many people, Desmond sees a straighter line toward helping these families: “More fundamentally, making housing more affordable could prevent many evictions.”

Rosen echoed this sentiment, saying that while programs such as short-term financial assistance to pay back rent and provide legal counsel are important for reducing eviction, these are still just temporary solutions.

“What we need is more affordable housing.”