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February 02, 2024

Legal representation for tenants vital to solving homelessness

With programs that supported homeowners and renters during the COVID-19 pandemic now ending, high eviction rates have returned, creating a “horrible cascade of problems” for families that lose their homes, housing experts said during the ABA Midyear Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

Successful programs that were implemented during the pandemic, including funding for training and recruitment programs for attorneys to defend tenants in eviction court, should be revaluated or reinstated, they said.

The program, “Post-Pandemic Trends and Challenges in Housing and Eviction Cases: An Analysis by the Legal Services Corporation and the ABA,” was sponsored by the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense and cosponsored by the ABA Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice and the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.

COVID-19 housing measures such as rental assistance, housing vouchers, an eviction moratorium and other funding distributed to high-need communities, were invaluable to individuals and communities that needed aid, the panel said.

Matthew Vincel, managing attorney for the Housing Practice Group with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said the organization’s “path out of the pandemic” was through the Right to Counsel program for low-income families facing eviction that was created in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

Three percent of tenants in eviction cases in 2019 were represented by counsel while 81% of landlords had counsel, he said. “There was huge discrepancy and there still is. But in places where the right to counsel is being implemented, that discrepancy is starting to even up a little,” he said.

Through the Right to Counsel program, “more than 90% of the folks we represent avoid eviction or an involuntary move out,” Vincel said. “Most of our cases end in some sort of resolution that both the tenant and the landlord can live with.”

“The outcomes in eviction court when you have an attorney versus if you don’t have an attorney are drastic,” added Jackson Cooper, housing justice attorney for the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

Cooper said a Kentucky mediation program based on pre-eviction filings also has shown some success. “It’s keeping people out of eviction court and keeping those filings off [their] records.”

Rental assistance was one of the most successful tools for keeping people in their homes during the pandemic, Cooper said. “But that federal and state money is drying up. We’re now reevaluating how that money was spent and how effective it was in long-term solutions and not just putting a Band-Aid on to keep someone in their home.

Keeping someone in their home for another month is a valuable thing,” he said. But groups are now focusing on a broader array of circumstances like mental health issues, drug abuse and domestic violence that are the root causes of homelessness in many cases.

“If you just give them money for their rent, that does nothing to help them with all of the reasons that brought them there in the first place,” Cooper said. “I’m seeing more of a focus on rental assistance being provided in the context of wrap-around services."

Jefferson Coulter, executive director of the Louisville Legal Aid Society, said the ban on evictions was a major factor in alleviating the housing crisis during the pandemic. “This process where you weren’t allowed to evict people and there was money available to pay landlords so they weren’t being deprived of their property rights” was key, he said. “Balancing that equation was what worked really effectively.”

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Michelle Keller, chair of the Kentucky Access to Justice Commission, who delivered opening remarks, said access to justice is the essence of the issue for poor and underserved groups.

“Our citizens are not going to have confidence in a system that they can’t access and if they keep getting the door slammed in their face, they are going to lose confidence in us and that is going to be the most devastating thing that can happen … whether here in Kentucky or nationally,” Keller said.

“Providing these citizens who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the courtroom is incredibly important.”