Written by Clare Pastore
All around the country, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans could be evicted from their homes as a result of lost jobs and income during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A federal moratorium on evicting tenants from federally-aided housing expired Aug. 1, and policymakers nationwide are scrambling to patch together emergency rental subsidies and assistance.
A recent UCLA study estimates that a minimum of 36,000 to 120,000 households in Los Angeles County, including 56,000 to 184,000 children, are likely to become homeless when evictions resume.
What if we knew that providing attorneys to tenants facing eviction could dramatically change eviction process outcomes? What if there was evidence that having lawyers meant that a significant number of tenants would not be evicted and others could arrange orderly departures, reducing the likelihood of homelessness and upheaval in the lives of children and vulnerable adults?
We do have such evidence.
Since 2011, through the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, California has been studying what happens when indigent litigants get lawyers in eviction actions. A June 2020 report to the Legislature from NPC Research, the nonpartisan research firm evaluating the Shriver Project, shows striking findings from the most recent three-year phase of the program.
More than 19,000 low-income tenants in seven participating counties received Shriver Project assistance. Most were women of color with minor children, and about a third live with a disability or chronic health condition. Although Shriver Project eligibility is capped at 200% of the poverty line, or approximately $43,000 per year for a family of three, the median annual income for the tenant families served was less than $13,000. Almost two-thirds were spending more than half their income on rent.
With the assistance of Shriver Project attorneys, tenant default rates fell, and most cases were settled, decreasing the number of trials, which are burdensome for landlords and courts. Although most tenants ended up moving, only 3% of cases ended with a court judgment of eviction, an important achievement since such judgments can land tenants on a blacklist, making future housing even more difficult to attain.
Shriver Project attorneys negotiated reductions or waivers of past-due rent and facilitated landlord agreements not to make adverse credit reports. Fewer tenants were ordered to pay holdover damages or attorneys’ fees. All of these measures resulted in median savings of almost $2,000 per tenant, funds desperately needed to secure new housing.
Perhaps even more striking, a small sample of tenants interviewed a year after their cases closed revealed that 71% of them had obtained a new rental unit, compared to only 43% of unrepresented tenants. Settlements also benefited landlords, who secured a date certain when the tenant would move, generally with an agreement to leave the home in good repair.
With the pandemic, lawyers are more important than ever for tenants, because the rules governing evictions and rent raises are so complex. For example, since March 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors and the City of Los Angeles have issued and passed various measures protecting tenants by limiting evictions and rent raises. But many such provisions apply only to tenants who possess, marshal and file specified proof that their inability to pay was caused by COVID-19, or who can prove they notified the landlord by a particular date. Doing this without the assistance of a lawyer is highly unlikely.
News reports already abound of landlords illegally locking out, harassing and filing spurious nuisance suits against tenants unable to pay. Lawyers can address unlawful practices and help tenants navigate the gauntlet of procedural and substantive barriers they must overcome.
Lawyers make eviction proceedings more fair, an important goal at any time. During an emergency, it’s essential.
Clare Pastore, a longtime anti-poverty lawyer, is professor of the Practice of Law at the USC Gould School of Law. She is co-author of the leading Poverty Law textbook, firstname.lastname@example.org. The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.