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More renters facing eviction have a right to a lawyer. Finding one can be hard

Baltimore attorney Joseph Loveless with Keisha, a tenant he recently represented in rent court. Maryland is among a growing number of places that guarantee lawyers for low-income renters facing eviction. (Keisha didn't want to give her last name for fear of retaliation from her landlord.)
Jennifer Ludden
/
NPR
Baltimore attorney Joseph Loveless with Keisha, a tenant he recently represented in rent court. Maryland is among a growing number of places that guarantee lawyers for low-income renters facing eviction. (Keisha didn't want to give her last name for fear of retaliation from her landlord.)

On a recent Thursday morning, attorney Joseph Loveless arrives at rent court in Baltimore hoping to help someone stay in their home. He was inspired to join Maryland Legal Aid after both the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland passed laws in 2021 guaranteeing the right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction.

"Homelessness is a crisis in this country," he says. "It's pretty much trying to stop the bleeding at the source."

But Loveless doesn't know whether he'll get a chance to do that this day.

Two years after the laws passed, there's still no system to match attorneys with tenants. So Loveless and his colleagues arrive half an hour before the court opens and offer themselves up. "We will be making an announcement basically right in front of the door saying, you know, 'Everybody who's waiting to get in, you might want to speak to us first,'" Loveless says.

For most renters, there has been a legal disadvantage

Across the U.S., judges have final say over evictions, and there has long been a major power imbalance in courts: Some 80% of landlords have lawyers, but just 3% of tenants do. Those facing eviction are also disproportionately people of color, reflecting generations of racial discrimination in real estate, banking and the labor market.

New York City in 2017 was the first to guarantee a right to counsel for renters, and the COVID-19 pandemic fueled a rapid expansion. So far, four states, 16 cities and one county have passed right-to-counsel laws. They're being put to the test as emergency pandemic protections end and eviction filingssurge — to well above pre-pandemic levels in some places.

In the Baltimore courtroom hallway, Loveless quickly connects with a renter. They huddle on a bench as he scribbles notes. Then he approaches the attorney for the woman's landlord, and they huddle in a stairwell. When the judge calls them up — success. The landlord's attorney has agreed to dismiss the case, and the tenant can stay put.

The tenant is Keisha, who doesn't want to give her last name for fear of retaliation from her landlord. After the hearing, she explains that she has been stressed financially, helping her daughter get through a devastating illness. "I missed some payments due to my daughter almost passed away," she says, getting emotional.

Keisha had been approved for emergency rent help, some of the last bit of pandemic aid left in Baltimore. But the money was delayed for months, and during that time the landlord went ahead and scheduled an eviction. So Keisha borrowed money from friends and family for her rent, though it wasn't enough to cover the rent owed over several months.

She says she's grateful to the lawyer who helped her and whom she met barely an hour ago. Then she laughs as she realizes she doesn't even know his name.

Even if renters still must leave, having a lawyer can be crucial

The evidence so far suggests right-to-counsel laws are helping people avoid eviction, says John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. In many cases, he says, tenants may have a valid defense but not realize it — for example, if a landlord has not properly filed the eviction or is charging more than allowed.

But not everyone in eviction court wants to stay put. Pollock says sometimes people have stopped paying rent because the landlord hasn't addressed mold or other health hazards. In such cases — and even when renters must still move out against their will — he says an attorney can help with three crucial decisions: How much back rent must they pay? How much time do they get to find another place? And will the eviction appear on their rental history or credit report?

"If they don't have legal assistance with those issues," he says, "they will lose on all three. And as a result of that, their chance of finding new housing is very, very low."

But these right-to-counsel laws have spread so quickly and demand is so great that places such as New York City and Kansas City, Mo., have faced a serious shortage of lawyers.

"In some jurisdictions, the courts are simply saying, 'Oh, there's no attorney available. Well, too bad, we're just going to evict the tenant anyway,' which is really a dereliction of duty on their part, in our view," Pollock says.

In Washington state — where courts actually appoint eviction attorneys — judges will delay a case if the tenant doesn't have counsel.

To attract more lawyers, some places are boosting legal aid salaries and stepping up recruitment at law schools.

Landlords say it would be better to help tenants before they fall behind in rent

Groups representing landlords and property owners strongly oppose right-to-counsel laws. "That money would be much better spent if it was helping to avoid eviction in the first place," says Nicole Upano of the National Apartment Association.

For example, she says states and cities could help tenants by putting more money "toward emergency rental assistance or, if they need longer-term assistance, through housing subsidy programs," including assistance in using housing vouchers. Right now, only 1 in 4 people who qualify for such a federal subsidy actually gets it, and housing vouchers can be difficult to use since in many states, landlords can legally refuse to accept them.

Upano also says that when landlords delay evictions for people who simply can't pay, it drives up their costs, which inevitably get passed on to other renters, "making housing, ultimately, increasingly unaffordable."

Another goal is simply to get more tenants to show up in court

Right now, many renters figure there's no way they'll win in eviction court, so they skip it, lose by default and get forced out of their homes. That's what often happened on that Thursday in Baltimore, as tenant after tenant was a no-show. The judge ruled against every one, often in a matter of seconds.

Maryland is trying to spread the word about its new law, which is being phased in across the state. Legal aid groups have set up tables at community events, letting renters know they have a right to counsel and explaining the importance of showing up at court should it come to that.

The state is also starting to test an eviction hotline to connect people with an attorney before their court date. It's run by Maryland's United Way Helpline, and Assistant Director Elaine Pollack says it can demystify how evictions work.

"A lot of times, we'll get a call that's just frantic: 'I have to be out by this date,'" Pollack says. "And then we come to find out it's not an eviction notice after all — it's an intent to file or it's a warning."

The hotline will also connect callers with groups that provide food and clothing and that can help them search for another place to live — a major improvement from simply handing people a piece of paper with numbers to call.

"You're trying to reduce the burden on those stressed families by saying, 'We've got a one-stop shop here. Let us do the hard, heavy lifting for you,'" says Sarah Coffey Bowes, executive director of the legal services group Civil Justice.

Ultimately, as more renters around the country get legal help, Pollock of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel believes landlords will file fewer evictions and work out payment plans instead. Or they'll work out how tenants can "relocate in a graceful way," he says, "where they're able to find new housing, keep their belongings ... not encounter stints of homelessness."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.

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