Few tenants facing eviction have an attorney. Top lawmakers are poised to change that.
Facing eviction this winter, Alice attempted to email to Hartford Housing Court the documents needed to qualify for the eviction moratorium program established by the federal government during the pandemic, but her paperwork didn’t arrive.
At her hearing on Tuesday, Alice cried as she told a judge she meets all the requirements for the moratorium, to whom at Hartford Housing Court she sent her documents, and that she will be homeless if the judge allows a state marshal to remove her from her one-bedroom apartment in the West End of Hartford. The CT Mirror is not disclosing Alice’s last name in this article at her request.
“I’ve been looking for places to live, and with COVID, things have been really impossible,” said Alice. Unemployment payments from her pre-pandemic job at McDonald’s only recently came through, multiple calls to the state’s rental assistance program were never returned, and her larceny conviction from seven years ago is hindering her ability to find a job or new place to live, she said.
“I just need a little time now. I mean, I could try and pay something, like weekly or something … I have nowhere to go. I have been looking and applying. I’m a convicted felon. Nobody wants me.”
Alice had no attorney at this hearing. Her landlord, however, did.
Her situation is hardly unique. Thousands of Connecticut residents face eviction each year and must navigate alone the housing court labyrinth, where a mistake in filing paperwork can leave people homeless.
In February, of the 180 cases where a judge approved an eviction request, 158 of the landlords had an attorney, compared to just 10 of the tenants.
State lawmakers are looking to change this lopsided setup.
Legislation that would provide tenants facing eviction the “right to counsel” has been named a top priority of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and House Speaker Matt Ritter. Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney also supports the concept. A hearing on the bill was scheduled for Thursday at 11 a.m.
Legislative leaders support a version of “clean slate” legislation that would prevent an eviction complaint from serving as a “Scarlet E” that hinders future housing opportunities.
The state Department of Housing declined to comment on both bills.
“We need to give people access to an attorney, because these are unique, difficult situations that having a lawyer, I think, in the room helps a lot. [Evictions] are not straightforward — and especially when you add COVID and things into play and the different federal moratoriums,” said Ritter, D-Hartford. “I think that keeping people in their homes, is a very, very important thing. It relates to keeping people gainfully employed or able to seek work. For their children, this stability is really, really important.”
“It’s a matter of equity,” said Looney, D-New Haven.
Connecticut is one of seven states currently contemplating providing universal access to an attorney for low-income tenants facing eviction.
The push to provide an attorney for those in housing court has been gaining momentum across the country just as a deluge of evictions is anticipated. Lower-income workers continue to suffer disproportionately from the economic fallout that accompanied the pandemic. Seven cities — Baltimore, Boulder, Colo., Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., New York and San Francisco — have already passed legislation to provide counsel for lower-income tenants facing eviction.
“This is going to be the year where there’s going to be a state with the right to counsel,” said John Pollock, from the National Coalition for the Civil Right to Counsel.
There’s a racial justice component to this, as well, since those being impacted the most by evictions are Black and Hispanic residents who are twice as likely to rent as white people — the same population that’s more likely to contract and die from the virus.
Renters’ income is typically less than half of homeowners’.
“That right to counsel is a tool toward achieving race equity in our courts. Around the country, the people who face eviction disproportionately are Black families, and Black women in particular and their children. Evictions are often talked about in this way of, ‘You know, it’s a poverty issue. It’s an issue of people who tend to be transient.’ But we do not often enough talk about it as embracing race and gender justice issues, which it absolutely is, and that might change how people view this important protection,” said Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney of housing policy at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, whose organization helped get right-to-counsel legislation passed in the city.
Eviction rates in four Connecticut cities were among the highest in the nation in 2016, the most recent year analyzed by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Waterbury ranked 22nd among the nation’s large cities, with six out of every 100 renters being evicted. Hartford ranked 29th, Bridgeport 39th and New Haven 69th. This does not include “informal evictions,” such as when a landlord asks a tenant to move.
‘This is the year it happens’
A line of nonprofit organizations whose attorneys represent vulnerable populations in civil matters, including housing court, came before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee in 2016 to make their case that more attorneys are needed for those facing eviction, escaping domestic violence, in danger of losing custody of their children and facing workplace discrimination.
“Hiring an attorney in the U.S. is very expensive, often $200 to $300 an hour and more,” an official with the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, testified. “While legal services organizations are skilled in providing legal help to people near or below the poverty line, they are inadequately funded, so they cannot serve everyone who requests their help.”
In response, the legislature appointed a task force to study the issue. In late 2016, the task force recommended providing a right to counsel for those facing eviction.
“The State’s four flagship civil legal services offices turn away thousands of income-eligible residents seeking representation,” the group’s final report reads. “The right to speedy and meaningful access to justice is one of the cornerstones of the American justice system … Prior studies and reports, within the State and without, have proposed numerous thoughtful and nuanced recommendations, but they have not resulted in sufficient change.”
More than four years later, the problem persists, and only 7% of those facing eviction last fiscal year had an attorney.
Civil rights attorneys believe this is the year that changes.
“I think one of the differences this time is that people are actually organizing around the Right to Counsel both in Connecticut and nationally,” said Sarah White, a staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. “And obviously with COVID it’s also changed. I think the public focus on evictions has made clear for people how housing and public health are so connected and how damaging evictions can be for both that individual family and for the community long-term. So, I think this is the year it happens.”
There are up-front costs to providing an attorney for those unable to afford one, though the price tag has not yet been tallied, civil rights attorneys and legislative leaders say.
But research for Right to Counsel efforts in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts have all predicted that for every $1 spent providing counsel anywhere from $2.40 to $12.74 is saved by preventing people from becoming homeless and tapping emergency subsidies for a hotel or shelter and other safety net services. It also has the potential to reduce court caseloads because fewer evictions are being filed and more cases are being settled.
In Philadelphia, a slight uptick in funding that helped get more people attorneys has led to about 3,000 fewer evictions being filed or proceeding. It’s a trend Pollock has seen in other places that have increased representation.
“There’s a common perception that it’s just about tenants not paying the rent. That is such a misconception of what happens in housing court,” said Pollock. “These are not simple cases, even if the case is about non-payment of rent and not the landlord saying the tenant has breached their lease or something else is going on, the landlord may not have credited all the rent payments correctly, illegally charging certain things that they’re not allowed to charge under state law. The landlord may not have made repairs and that failure may be something that changes the amount of rent owed. And then during COVID, there has been a whole other layer of legal complexity because of the moratoria that have been in place, which you know are helpful, but if the tenants don’t know what their rights are, then they can’t enforce them.”
White, the attorney with Connecticut Fair Housing, said tenants who represent themselves really miss out.
“Evictions are very complex and fast moving, and even more so than a normal civil case. It’s really hard for tenants to effectively represent themselves. And of course, on top of that, they’re dealing with the incredible stressful situation of knowing that they might be displaced from their home in the very near future,” she said. “Having a lawyer makes it easier to negotiate some sort of agreement with the landlord.”
Ritter said he is committed to passing legislation that will provide funding to ensure Connecticut is the first state to guarantee a right to counsel for those facing eviction. To get the program launched, he wants the legislature — rather than the governor’s office — to determine how “every single cent” of the next round of the federal funding for the state’s COVID response is spent. He wants a portion of that earmarked to guarantee counsel in housing court.
“So, if this Congress says here’s $2.7 billion, use it for whatever you want, in revenue replacement or for COVID expenses, the legislature will appropriate those funds,” Ritter said, expecting the right-to-counsel bill to come with a multi-million up-front price tag but potential long-term savings. “It probably cuts down on a host of other services that we pay for on the state budget. So I think we need a bridge for a couple of years to handle the heavy influx, and then we’ve got to figure out what the program would look like when we get to a more stable terrain, hopefully in two or three years.”
Housing advocates asked the state Department of Housing in January to set aside up to 10% of of the $237 million the state received for rental assistance to provide counsel and prevent evictions. This week, the agency informed advocates it would set aside $1 million for that purpose.
In a statement, agency spokesman Aaron Turner declined to comment when asked if the administration supports providing a right to counsel or erasing eviction records after a certain time period, but he did outline some efforts the agency is taking to prevent evictions during the pandemic.
“DOH has taken actionable steps to assist households facing eviction. We have established the Homeless Prevention Program. Through that, we’ve partnered with the Judicial Branch and Statewide Legal Services to refer households to the program for financial assistance. The partnership with Statewide Legal Services includes a contract, in the amount of $1 million, to help bolster legal representation for those households in need. Also, through HPP, mediation services are being provided by Quinnipiac University’s Center on Dispute Resolution. The new rental assistance program, UniteCT, is on track to launch in the next couple of weeks,” Turner wrote.
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