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Tenants’ Right to Counsel on the Move, Next Stop Newark

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Early last month, Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Ras Baraka announced that he was creating a 15-member commission to oversee the equitable growth of the city, and declared that the city must be kept from becoming “another Brooklyn” — all but inaccessible to people of limited means.

As part of that effort, the New Jersey city is emulating a policy that’s been pioneered in New York. Last month, the city council approved a measure that would establish a civil right to counsel for tenants facing eviction, becoming only the third city to do so, behind New York and San Francisco. The legislation cites a “housing emergency” in Newark, where close to 80 percent of residents are renters, which “has been created, in part, by the filing of frivolous and/or retaliatory eviction actions by landlords.” And it establishes an Office of Tenant Legal Services to create a program providing free legal counsel in landlord-tenant court for people who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

Jason Grove, a senior policy advisor for the city, says the legislation was crafted to aid the most vulnerable residents in the city who are at the highest risk of becoming homeless.

“Mayor Ras J. Baraka believes that these types of tenant protections help maintain affordability and reduce the threat of homelessness,” Grove says via email. “As Newark continues to develop market-rate housing, anti-eviction measures and expanded housing supports will become critical to those most at risk of homelessness and eviction.”

Citing figures from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University and the Rutgers University Law School Center on Law, Inequality & Metropolitan Equity, Grove notes that about half of the 40,000 evictions filed in Essex County last year were filed in Newark, and that nine out of ten tenants facing an eviction were not represented by a lawyer.

The Eviction Lab was founded by Matt Desmond, whose book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, helped energize a movement around creating a civil right to counsel for renters facing evictions. As Next City and many others have reported, tenants stand a far greater chance of beating an eviction charge, and avoiding homelessness, when they are represented by a lawyer, as landlords usually are.

New York became the first city to establish a right to counsel for certain low-income tenants in 2017. Last June, San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure establishing a similar program there. The legislation in Newark requires that a pilot program for free legal counsel to income-eligible tenants be in place by April 1. Grove says he expects the program will cost between $750,000 and $1 million annually, and will provide a consultation or full legal representation to between 5,000 and 7,000 people a year. Newark will “partner with anchor institutions, nonprofit and pro bono legal services to develop a system of tenant counselors and free attorneys,” Grove says.

“An eviction has the potential to disrupt job opportunities and something as simple as a good night’s sleep for a child on a school night,” Grove says. “By providing access to free legal representation in landlord-tenant court, we also hope to prevent homelessness.”

John Pollock, a staff attorney at the Public Justice Center and coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, says that momentum is on the side of the movement to provide lawyers for tenants facing eviction. Officials are currently working on similar efforts in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, and the states of Minnesota and Massachusetts, according to Pollock. The Coalition is “scrambling to keep up,” he says.

“One of the commonalities is the presence of community organizing, which historically has not been the way that the right to counsel has been achieved,” Pollock says. “It has usually been a lawyer-driven movement.”

There are also related pilot programs in Washington, D.C., and Hennepin County, Minnesota. Pollock shared statistics from Hennepin County which show that out of 72 tenants who had received full legal representation through a the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and Volunteer Lawyers Network Housing Court Expansion Pilot Project, not a single one was evicted. In comparison, 36 percent of tenants who had received only advice from lawyers were evicted, and 43 percent of a comparison group that received no representation were evicted. He also noted that the program has been successful in expanding aid during its first year in New York, and that even the rate of eviction filings had decreased there.

“If you look at New York and D.C. and Minnesota, the results they’re getting back are just tremendous,” Pollock says. “They’re justifying everything we’ve ever said about why you need to do this.”

Pollock expects more cities and states to begin providing legal representation for low-income tenants in the next few years.

“If you think about it, after no place having the right to counsel for eternity, having three cities do it within the span of essentially a year is pretty miraculous,” Pollock says.

Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: affordable housingreal estatenewarklawsuits