Tipping the Scales in Housing Court

Our legal system extends the right to a state-appointed attorney to someone facing months or years of prison but not to someone facing months or years of homelessness.
Op-Ed (Massachusetts, Missouri, Wisconsin)

Matthew Desmond
New York Times (NYT)
November 29, 2012
Link to story

Tags: Legal Needs


Millions of Americans face eviction every year. But legal aid to the poor, steadily starved since the Reagan years, has been decimated during the recession. The result? In many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys and 90 percent of tenants are not. This imbalance of power is as unfair as the solution is clear.

When tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their homes increase dramatically. Establishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court is a cost-effective social policy that would prevent homelessness and uphold our ideals of fundamental fairness.
I’ve spent the last several years studying eviction. I lived for more than a year in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, shadowing evicted families and their landlords. Along the way, I saw hardworking landlords let some tenants slide when they missed payments or reluctantly evict families who had fallen behind. But I also saw landlords carry out retaliatory evictions against tenants who had reported housing problems, and watched some lie in court about what tenants had paid them. I met one landlord who hired heavies from outside the neighborhood to evict families and another who liked to remove the doors of tenants who hadn’t paid up.

Providing lawyers to tenants facing eviction would help curb these abuses and prevent families from being wrongly evicted. And it works. A recent randomized experiment in Quincy, Mass., involving 129 participants showed that two-thirds of tenants offered full representation avoided eviction, compared with one-third who were offered limited assistance like instructional clinics.