Muggers get lawyers. Why not a family facing eviction? | Editorial

Posted Mar 28, 2021

If somebody is arrested in a bar fight, he has a right to a lawyer, even at public expense. But if a poor family is being tossed out of their apartment with nowhere to go, they have no right to legal representation, because eviction is a civil matter.

Yet obviously, this is not a fair fight. Ninety-nine percent of the time, tenants don’t have an attorney, while most landlords do. As a result, at least half these cases never actually go before a judge – they get resolved by strong-arming in the courthouse hallway, where a landlord’s attorney strikes a hard bargain with a tenant, who still gets forced out.

Now imagine the tsunami to come. Experts estimate about 300,000 renters are behind on payments in New Jersey, owing a total of at least $2 billion in back rent. On top of the many other hardships they’ve faced this year, all these families could be left without a home when the governor lifts his moratorium on evictions after the pandemic.

The federal relief money will help, once it’s finally handed out. But landlords are trying to strike these deals right now, so we need to get tenants lawyers. Even if it just means setting up a pilot program in the hardest-hit cities, as the state is planning to launch this Spring, or training housing counselors without law degrees to help, we have to do something to level the playing field if we hope to avoid a cascade of evictions.

Newark is the only city in the state with an Office for Tenant Legal Services, where attorney Khabirah Myers is doing an admirable job in the face of long odds. But while Mayor Ras Baraka worked hard to make this a reality, he didn’t have the money to put behind it. There’s no way a single lawyer can help every tenant in Newark. The Murphy administration says it will be piloting a program in Atlantic City, East Orange, and Trenton, to see how this might work.

New York City provides plenty of inspiration. Last year, it paid more than $128 million for free lawyers for tenants, part of a rollout expected to cost $166 million annually when fully implemented and benefit 400,000 New Yorkers in about 125,000 cases a year. Already, it’s making a huge difference. At the end of 2019, only about 32 percent of tenants facing eviction had lawyers. By 2020, it was 62 percent, in the twenty ZIP codes targeted in the first phase of the program.

This has kept thousands of families in their homes. About 84 percent of those represented were able to stay in their apartments, in the cases that were resolved, the city reports. Even eviction filings dropped 30 percent, which is revealing. Some landlords will file bogus claims when they know they can get away with it. And just the existence of a filing can get tenants blackballed from future rentals, even if they didn’t pay rent for a legitimate reason, like having no heat or water.

Those who get evicted suffer even more cascading effects. Kids get moved from one school to the next. It hurts their parents’ credit ratings and makes it harder to buy a car. The lack of an address forces the family to miss out on benefits and makes it tough to hold down a job. A single eviction might leave ten people homeless. Cities like Newark, where 78% of residents are renters, could get slammed. Even during the moratorium, 14,000 cases have already been filed in Essex County alone.

Courts are starting to process those 14,000 cases, for fear they’ll soon have triple that. The only way to resolve them right now is through a voluntary deal between a tenant and landlord, in which tenants often have no clue what’s going on. An elderly renter in a Zoom hearing essentially relies on the judge to be his lawyer, in what could be just the first of dozens of cases heard that day. In a system this imbalanced, he hardly stands a chance.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-03-29 02:39:06 -0700