Right to counsel is both a housing and public health intervention
The COVID 19 pandemic exposed and clarified the significance of housing for health and well-being. Recognition that housing instability and homelessness contributed to the spread of COVID 19 spurred urgent and creative action to address symptoms of a longstanding affordable housing crisis including the risk of eviction from rental housing. As one example, here in Connecticut, a statewide moratorium on evictions helped keep renters housed when pandemic related wage loss caused them to fall behind on rent.
Similarly, the CDC’s eviction moratorium helped to prevent a tidal wave of evictions across the country. These moratoria were critical stop gap measures in a time of crisis. However, as a post-pandemic period comes closer into view, there is an urgent need to build on these temporary measures to ensure housing security for all, including protections against evictions and the cascade of negative health consequences that are associated with these forced moves. One such strategy is to provide legal representation for tenants facing eviction.
An abundance of evidence speaks to the need for legal representation (counsel) among families facing eviction, and the effectiveness of counsel for eviction prevention. In Connecticut, the Fair Housing Center has found that 44% of tenant cases without counsel led to removal orders, compared to 21% of cases with counsel. Currently, however, 93% of tenants facing eviction in the state do not have counsel. Eight cities have already enacted right to counsel, a policy that provides legal representation for tenants facing eviction. Additionally, right to counsel bills have passed the legislature in two states, and seven more states are considering new right to counsel legislation in 2021. In enacting these policies, states and cities have pointed to public health benefits and reductions in health care spending that are associated with eviction prevention.
Indeed, a significant body of research documents the health consequences of eviction for adults and children. Evictions are associated with increases in maternal depression, parenting stress, and poor child health. Research here in New Haven and nationally, finds that evictions are associated with increases in sexually transmitted infection. Furthermore, a recent national study found that evictions during pregnancy are associated with significant increases in low birthweight and premature birth, conditions that can have lifelong health implications. Housing instability and eviction can make it difficult for individuals to maintain health routines, and having to move, or even being worried about potential eviction, can cause trauma and stress that adversely affects psychological well-being and can have lasting implications for physical health.
Beyond these immediate health costs, eviction can have long-standing impacts on health and well-being that stem in part from the barriers that an eviction record presents to housing. Many prospective tenants marked with an eviction record are unable to find housing and consequently end up homeless or doubled up with family and friends in unstable, crowded, and often stressful conditions that can adversely affect the health of both guests and hosts. When those with eviction records are able to secure housing, they often must settle for inadequate housing conditions replete with health hazards such as mold, lead paint, and broken plumbing.
Given huge racial income and wealth inequality due to historical and ongoing structural racism, including persistent discrimination in housing, Black and Latinx people are more likely to rent, more likely to struggle to pay rent, and more likely to be evicted; in Connecticut, Black and Latinx families are twice as likely as white families to be evicted. During the pandemic, renters of color and low-income renters have become even more housing insecure. Thus, evictions not only affect the health of individual renters, they are also likely to exacerbate racial health inequality.
To be sure, we need to address the root causes of the eviction crisis by ensuring a right to housing. Ultimately, we need more high-quality affordable housing, measures to ensure that everyone has adequate income to afford housing, and protections for those who experience income disruptions. However, until that vision is realized, right to counsel can provide significant relief to families at risk of eviction, reducing the significant negative health impacts we have described.
It is time for Connecticut to pass legislation to ensure that everyone has access to legal counsel in case they are threatened with eviction. The costs of providing such counsel can be covered with American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, at least through 2024. Providing right to counsel will be a significant and worthy investment in the long-term health and well-being of Connecticut residents.
Danya Keene is an Associate Professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Annie Harper is a cultural anthropologist at the Yale School of Medicine’s Program for Recovery and Community Health.
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