Right to counsel is just as much a racial justice issue as a housing policy issue
Despite the state and federal moratoriums on eviction, nearly 3,000 Connecticut families have faced eviction in the past 10 months. Over half of these families were Black or Latinx, even though these groups combined comprise less than a quarter of the overall population.
The stop-gap measures pursued by the state are not enough. Connecticut needs a statewide right to counsel for tenants facing eviction to address the burning housing and racial justice crisis across the state.
While defendants in criminal cases have a constitutionally protected right to an attorney at no cost, tenants in eviction cases have no such protection. In Connecticut, less than 7 percent of tenants facing eviction have legal counsel, compared to over 80 percent of landlords. Connecticut has been in a housing crisis for years, with four cities ranking in the top 100 urban eviction rates. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse: over 45,000 tenants are expected to face evictions once the current eviction moratorium expires.
When we talk about an eviction crisis, we are talking about a racial justice crisis. Black and Latinx households are up to two times more likely to face an eviction than white households. Let that sink in: for every one eviction filed against a white family, more than two families of color have evictions filed against them. Black women and women of color especially bear the burden of evictions. An ACLU study found that women of color made up 70 percent of tenants facing eviction.
Beyond the loss of housing, evictions cause homelessness, negative physical and mental health outcomes, disruption in children’s schooling, and increased exposure to COVID-19 and other diseases. Any record of an eviction also acts as a scarlet letter for tenants, making it difficult to secure stable housing in the future.
Ultimately, evictions and the eviction process further entrench racial and ethnic disparities in health, wealth, and housing. To quote Matthew Desmond’s 2017 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, “eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”
Connecticut has recently seen a huge push to implement statewide right to counsel legislation for eviction cases. This legislation seeks to guarantee no cost legal representation in all eviction cases in Connecticut, and this would be the first statewide policy of its kind in the country. A petition demanding this legislation started by the Democratic Socialists of America’s Central Connecticut chapter has gained over 1,000 individual signatures and over 40 endorsing organizations. Local officials and state reps have listened: the legislation will receive a public hearing in the near future, with public testimony from Connecticut residents across the state.
With right to counsel legislation, Connecticut has a meaningful chance to curb the housing and eviction crisis. In Connecticut, statistics show that tenants with legal representation are much less likely to ultimately be evicted. Data from Connecticut’s Fair Housing Center tells us that:
- 44% of tenant cases without counsel led to removal orders, compared to 21% with counsel;
- 28% of tenant cases without counsel led to landlord obtaining a judgment of possession for non-payment of rent, compared 3.4% with tenant counsel; and
- the likelihood of a case being withdrawn more than doubled with tenant counsel.
Seven cities across the country have implemented right to counsel legislation, and they have seen incredible results: In San Francisco, which enacted right to counsel in 2018, two-thirds of represented tenants stayed in their homes. In New York City, which enacted right to counsel in 2017, 86% of represented tenants stayed in their homes and there was a 77% decrease in the number of cases that resulted in a warrant for eviction. Philadelphia found that tenants with legal representation avoided displacement 95% of the time, compared to only 22% of unrepresented tenants.
In addition to the benefit of keeping tenants in their homes, right to counsel legislation saves the state money. Evictions add pressure to the shelter system, the foster care system, emergency rooms, and can cause other externalities like homelessness and crime. For every dollar spent on right to counsel, states have saved between $2.40 and $12.74.
Right to counsel legislation will not only help prevent evictions, but also make a huge difference for communities of color. The eviction crisis is a racial justice crisis, and right to counsel legislation provides one of the most immediate tools to generate positive change.
Pearson Caldwell is an organizer with the Right to Counsel Coalition and the Central Connecticut chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)
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