Image: Tenant rights activists rally in DC earlier this year
Eviction is just about the scariest thing that a tenant can face. It increases your risk of homelessness, poverty, and job loss. It’s more likely to happen to you if you’re a woman, if you’re black, or if you have kids. And it can set your family back for years. That’s why Washington, DC and New York City just implemented laws offering free legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction.
These laws are part of a growing movement across the country, called “civil Gideon,” to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction. It stems from data showing that while landlords almost always have a lawyer in eviction suits, tenants almost never do. In DC, 94 percent of landlords have legal representation. That’s compared to only 5 percent of tenants.
That gap produces a huge disparity in outcomes, with tenants often being evicted over minimal debts. Sometimes it’s not even a debt tenants are unable to pay–withholding rent is a common last-straw tactic for tenants who can’t get landlords to make necessary fixes. But without a lawyer to guide them, that tactic can end in eviction.
Opponents of New York City’s law, which offers free representation to tenants making up to $50,000, complain about its cost–estimated to be about $200 million each year. But because evictions so often result in homelessness, increased reliance on safety net programs, and other costs to local governments, supporters of the bill decided to run the numbers.
They found that the measure will not only pay for itself, but it will result in over $300 million of additional savings each year. Between saving tenants strife and saving the city money, it’s hard to find a reason to oppose this bill.
The DC Council agrees, and a similar bill put forward earlier this year by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) ended up being included in this year’s budget support act. As a much smaller city, the costs for DC’s program are significantly less than in New York City–the budget included $3.9 million in ongoing funds and an additional $600,000 for this year.
Tenant groups and other advocates will be sure to watch this process closely. But with widespread support, plus clear benefits for tenants and the city coffers, DC’s new effort to get free legal representation for low-income tenants should be a great success.