Give tenants legal help in eviction cases
At the time of one’s life when their very freedom is threatened, Americans are entitled, under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, to legal counsel to help them defend themselves.
Without it, most criminal defendants in America would be overrun by the legal maneuverings of government prosecutors, who have extensive knowledge of the law and courtroom experience making strong arguments against their foes — individuals charged with crimes.
In eviction cases, tenants have virtually just much at stake in the outcome of their case — the basic right to have a roof over their heads and a secure place to live and raise their families.
Yet the Sixth Amendment doesn’t provide a constitutional right to legal counsel in such disputes.
In eviction proceedings statewide, more than nine in 10 landlords are represented by attorneys, while less than one in 10 tenants are, officials say.
The same justification that supports the Sixth Amendment rights of criminal defendants holds true in the case of tenants facing eviction — without a lawyer, you don’t have much of a chance to win. And the consequence of losing is you and your family being out on the streets.
That’s the impetus for efforts on the state and local level to ensure that tenants have the same access to legal services as the people they’re up against in courts – their landlords.
The goal is not to give tenants an advantage over landlords, but to level the playing field.
New York City has had such a law since 2017. Albany County is considering one.
On Thursday, the Westchester County Board of Legislators unanimously passed a bill to guarantee legal representation to low-income households facing eviction. The services are based on income level, as well as available to those in danger of losing other government subsidies and those challenging rent increases, seeking restoration of essential services and those locked out of their homes.
In Westchester, taxpayers will support the lawyers. Under other proposals, funds would be provided by private tenant and human rights groups.
The cost of legal counsel statewide could be as much as $500 million per year. But supporters say the alternative cost of providing welfare benefits, shelter and emergency room services, as well as the impacts on an individual’s livelihood and kids’ education, more than justifies the expense.
Among the negatives, besides the potential cost, are the availability of lawyers to handle the cases and their existing workloads. Those factors need to be addressed in any local or state program that uses taxpayer funds.
The disparity between those with attorneys and those without has become even more evident and necessary as covid protections prohibiting evictions have begun to expire and more tenants are in courts facing eviction. So action is needed now.
Having a place to live is a basic human right.
Providing legal counsel to needy tenants gives them a fighting chance to protect that right.
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