Washington may soon become the country’s first state to ensure that low-income tenants have legal representation when facing eviction, an idea that lawmakers see as a way to avert a dreaded eviction wave once the era’s rent restrictions of the pandemic are suspended.
A bill that is likely to be passed by the state legislature follows years of organization by defenders of tenants across the country, who claim to guarantee lawyers for
tenants during evictions, also known as the “right to counsel”, keep people in their homes at rates much higher than the current system. However, a last-minute amendment added to the bill would also suspend the state’s moratorium on evictions in less than three months from now, raising the alarm from advocates who say it is not enough time to prepare the state for potential “eviction cliff”.
The Washington bill, which passed the state Senate and House and now returns to the Senate for final approval, would provide lawyers for tenants who receive certain public assistance who have been unintentionally admitted to a public mental health establishment, cannot paying a lawyer or who have an income of 125% or below the federal poverty level – $ 16,100 annually for individuals, $ 33,125 for a family of four. The state’s Office of Civil Legal Assistance would have 90 days to develop a plan to implement the law within a year.
Jim Bamberger, director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, projects that the office would need to hire 58 additional lawyers across the state to represent poor tenants and an additional force of lawyers hired to handle the wave of cases that are expected to reach the courts when eviction moratoriums are lifted. His office estimates $ 11.4 million in costs in the first year.
“I think this (provision of the right to a lawyer) is a powerful statement by the legislature in terms of the balance of power in the justice system between tenants and landlords,” said Bamberger. “And I think it will work, honestly, in favor of both.”
However, there is still significant uncertainty about whether there would be enough help for tenants at the time the statewide eviction moratorium is lifted. An amendment added to the bill on Thursday night would end the current eviction moratorium on June 30, the same day it is scheduled to expire.
Governor Jay Inslee extended the moratorium several times while the pandemic continued and could, in theory, create a new moratorium, even if the amendment became law. Bipartisan support for the amendment sent the bill back to the Senate, and it is unclear whether the political leadership will support the end of the moratorium forever. Bamberger said it would be impossible to have all the lawyers needed for tenants by July 1.
While housing advocates are warning of the end of the moratorium in June, lawmakers from both parties in the state legislature disagree about the impact of the moment, given other protections to tenants included in the bill, such as restrictions on the repayment plan and a program resolution to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants.
At the same time, if poor tenants do not have access to the eviction resolution program or a lawyer, the amendment would temporarily require the state to provide rental assistance directly to their landlord.
“The argument that the day the moratorium ends, people will be on the streets is simply false,” said deputy Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia. “It takes months to go through the eviction process. We believe that there will be a long time for these things to be set up. ”
Meanwhile, Senator Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the original sponsor of the project, said the June 30 deadline was hampering the impact of the right to counsel.
“It is not the right policy and it will end up doing much more harm than good,” said Kuderer.
It is estimated that more than 160,000 homes in Washington are behind on rent at the end of March, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Domestic Pulse Survey, nearly 11% of homes renting in the state. Nationally, it is estimated that 7.2 million tenant homes are behind schedule, with projections of delayed rent totaling billions of dollars.
The pandemic sparked an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm for the protection of tenants across the country, according to John Pollock, coordinator of the lobby organization National Coalition for Civil Law for the Lawyer. Seven other state legislatures are now considering similar types of bills.
“What we’re seeing now is a game changer,” said Pollock.
Tenant organizers have long supported the right to a lawyer as a way of correcting a power imbalance between generally wealthier landlords with lawyers and tenants who cannot afford or do not know how to get lawyers in eviction proceedings. Between 2010 and 2017, only 11% of eviction defendants in Washington state had lawyers appointed in their lawsuits, according to the University of California, Berkeley and University of Washington eviction study, compared to 93.4% of the claimants.
Preliminary figures for cities with the right to counsel suggest that protection, if it arrives in time, can be a powerful deterrent to the feared mass evictions when federal and state moratoriums expire.
In New York City, which in 2017 became the first city to start implementing the right to prosecutors in evictions by zip code, 86% of families represented by prosecutors were able to stay in their homes, according to the city’s Civil Justice Secretariat.
In 2020, San Francisco officials said that 67% of the people represented by the city’s lawyer’s law could remain lodged, although more than a year in implementation, the program is still fell short of demand for representation.
A 2021 assessment in the first six months of Cleveland’s right to a lawyer The law also found that 93% of cases with legal counsel for tenants in the housing court prevented evictions.
But finding a causal link between the law itself and fewer evictions is difficult to do when city programs are so new and data is limited.
Sophie House, legal researcher at the Furman Center at New York University and co-author of a study published last year that looked at the impact of New York City’s right to advocacy, said the research was unable to conclude whether access to lawyers lowered the eviction rate without controlling for other possible factors, such as increases in tenant reach, other legal services and rental assistance.
New York City evictions have been declining since 2013 and fell by nearly 17% between 2018 and 2019, according to city data.
“We saw a downward trend and we hope that in future research we will be able to analyze the roles of lawyers in this,” said House.
Devika Balaram, a lawyer with the New York legal services team, Mobilization for Justice, was hired to represent tenants as part of the city’s new attorney law program shortly after law school in 2019. She works in the Bronx, the neighborhood with the highest rate of evictions each year, and before the pandemic, there were mainly cases of people who owed rent.
Balaram said he had great success only in saving his clients’ time through legal maneuvers. If a client lost his job and faced eviction, a motion to close a case based on a procedural error by the owner could give the client the two months needed to find work and recover the rent. Balaram could also help clients obtain public debt assistance at that time.
Time, said Balaram, is “the victory that can really matter to put power back in the hands of the tenant”.
Proponents of the bill say that enacting law on lawyers’ rights would improve outcomes for everyone, particularly for communities that support the disproportionate burden of evictions.
The individuals and families most likely to be evicted are black and Latino. The University of California, Berkeley and University of Washington Eviction Study found in 2019 that in King County, black adults are evicted more than 5 times than white adults; in Pierce County, almost 7 times as much.
“There is a lot of impact between my county and Pierce County and the only way to make this more fair is to change the [law]”Said Paula Sardinas, who represents South King County on the Washington Commission on African American Affairs and is part of the governor’s eviction moratorium task force.
Otherwise, she said, “we are going to force many mothers and children to become homeless.”
A large part of the landlord’s lobby also supports the bill. Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association group of owners, testified in favor of the legislation in the state chamber.
Rent assistance, added Waller, was instrumental in avoiding evictions. In February, Washington allocated an additional $ 355 million in federal funds for rent and utility assistance, and the Kuderer bill authorizes homeowners to receive rental assistance funds.
Under the $ 1.9 trillion federal stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden last month, another estimated $ 404 million in rental assistance is directed to the state of Washington.
“Having this ability to have access to a lawyer adds value to tenants and landlords because it helps to resolve cases more quickly,” said Waller, although he noted that representation can still be a challenge for smaller landlords who are short of money due to a shortage. rental payments.
Reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this story.