For low-income renters facing the possibility of eviction — disproportionately renters of color and particularly Black women with children — having legal representation can mean the difference between staying in their homes and being forced out. While the United States Constitution provides all individuals facing criminal charges with a right to counsel, no such constitutional right exists in civil cases, including eviction cases. Low-income tenants must typically represent themselves against landlords who often have legal representation. According to data analyzed by the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, across the US, only three percent of tenants have legal representation in eviction cases, while 81 percent of landlords have representation. In the face of this uneven playing field, a growing number of cities are passing policies that provide a right to free legal assistance to low-income renters facing eviction cases. And they are working: In New York City, 84 percent of represented tenants remained in their homes, and in Cleveland, more than 90 percent of tenants with legal representation avoided eviction or an involuntary move.
By providing a right to legal assistance to low-income renters facing eviction, cities, and states can intervene to help stabilize households at a crucial moment — evictions increase individuals' and families' vulnerability to homelessness, resulting in negative consequences for their health, education, and economic mobility. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Philadelphia maintained eviction rates well below historic filing rates but eviction filings were still disproportionately being filed against Black renters, who are twice as likely to face the threat of an eviction compared to their white counterparts.
Preventing evictions is also a key strategy to maintain neighborhood stability in housing markets where unscrupulous landlords may be tempted to use the threat of eviction as a tool to remove rent-protected households. In addition, preventing evictions can mitigate the power imbalance between tenants and landlords. Landlords have taken advantage of their relative power in the eviction process to serially file evictions against tenants as a rent collection tool. Outside of the courts, landlords have been found to illegally evict tenants through threats, lockouts, or other means which has been shown to occur with as much frequency as legal evictions.
Finally, preventing evictions can save cities a lot of money. This fact is underscored by comprehensive cost-benefit analyses (CBA) conducted in various regions. Notably, a CBA for a right to counsel for tenants in New York City found that the program would cost about $200 million per year, and would save the city $320 million in costs related to housing displaced families in the homeless shelter system, preservation of rent-regulated affordable housing, and unsheltered homelessness.
A Pennsylvania statewide CBA also found that cost savings would result in $3-$6 for every dollar invested in legal representation for tenants, and if fully implemented across the state of Pennsylvania, a program providing universal access to legal representation for tenants would result in eviction filings declining by 5 percent each year. A 2022 economic impact assessment on Detroit’s right-to-counsel initiative was predicted to lead to over $18 million in annual cost savings for social safety net responses. Detroit City Council later passed right-to-counsel legislation in May of 2022. Further, in Cleveland, the first midwestern city to pass right to counsel, an evaluation of the program showed $1.1 million in cost savings related to housing social safety net responses, $1.4 million in economic value preserved by retaining residency in Cleveland, and many others, totaling up to $4.7 million in estimated fiscal savings.
In addition to the PolicyLink resources listed to the right, see Public Counsel, National Coalition for Civil Right to Counsel, Results for America Solutions Sprint: Advancing Racial and Health Justice through Right to Counsel for Tenants Facing Eviction (ARHJ), and National Low Income Housing Coalition for additional resources on tenant right to counsel.