Washington may soon be first state to guarantee lawyers for low-income tenants facing eviction

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Washington could soon be the first state in the country to ensure that low-income tenants have legal representation in the event of an eviction. An idea that lawmakers see as a way to avert a feared wave of evictions once rental restrictions are lifted in the pandemic.

A bill likely to pass state legislation follows years of organization by tenant attorneys across the country who say providing lawyers to tenants during evictions, also known as the “right to advice”, extends to people in their homes with far higher rates than the current system holds. However, a last-minute amendment to the bill would also lift the state’s eviction moratorium in less than three months and alert supporters who say this is not enough time to prepare the state for a potential “eviction cliff”.

Washington’s Senate Act 5160, which passed the Senate and State House of Representatives and is now returning to the Senate for final approval, would offer tenants attorneys who receive certain public assistance, have been involuntarily admitted to a public mental health facility, and cannot afford an attorney or lawyer with an income of 125% or less below the federal poverty line – – $ 16,100 annually for individuals, $ 33,125 for a household of four. The State Civil Legal Aid Office would have 90 days to devise a plan to implement the law within one year.

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Jim Bamberger, director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, believes the office would need to hire 58 additional lawyers across the state to represent poor tenants and an additional group of contract lawyers to handle the wave of cases, one of which expected to go to court on eviction moratoriums will be lifted. His office estimates the cost for the first year at $ 11.4 million.

“I think this (right to legal advice) is a strong statement from the legislature regarding the balance of power between tenants and landlords in the judicial system,” said Bamberger. “And I think it will honestly work for both of you.”

However, there is still considerable uncertainty as to whether sufficient help would be available to tenants at the time of the lifting of the state-wide eviction moratorium. An amendment made to the bill on Thursday evening would end the current eviction moratorium on June 30, the day it is expected to expire.

Governor Jay Inslee has extended the moratorium several times over the course of the pandemic and could theoretically create a new moratorium even if the change becomes law. Bipartisan support for the amendment has sent the bill back to the Senate, and it is unclear whether the political leadership will support the final end of the moratorium. Bamberger said it would be impossible to have all of the lawyers needed for tenants by July 1.

While advocates of housing construction are sounding the alarm because the moratorium is due to end in June, legislators from both parties in the state parliament disagree on the impact of the schedule, as other tenant protection measures are included in the bill, such as B. Restrictions on the repayment plan and a settlement program to be developed Disputes between landlords and tenants.

If poor tenants do not have access to the eviction program or a lawyer, the change would temporarily require the state to provide rental assistance directly to their landlord.

“The argument that the day the moratorium ends, people will be on the streets is simply wrong,” said Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia. “It takes months to complete the eviction process. We believe there will be plenty of time to set these things up. ”

Meanwhile, Senator Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the original sponsor of the bill, said the June 30 deadline jeopardized the effects of the right to legal assistance.

“It’s not the right policy and in the end it will do far more harm than good,” said Kuderer.

According to the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, an estimated 160,000 Washington households were below rent as of the end of March. Almost 11% of households rent in the state. Nationwide, an estimated 7.2 million tenant households are lagging behind, and rent back projections run into billions of dollars.

According to John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, the pandemic has sparked an unprecedented wave of excitement for protecting tenants across the country. Seven other lawmakers are currently examining similar types of legislation.

“What we’re seeing is a game changer,” said Pollock.

Tenant organizers have long supported the right to counseling to correct a power imbalance between normally wealthier landlords with attorneys and tenants who cannot afford or do not know how to get attorneys into eviction proceedings. According to the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington Evictions Study, only 11% of defendants in Washington state had lawyers named in their cases between 2010 and 2017, compared with 93.4% of plaintiffs.

Preliminary figures from cities with legal counsel suggest that the protection, if it arrives in time, could act as a strong deterrent against the mass evictions feared by the federal and state governments after the moratoria expire.

In New York City, which was the first city to introduce lawyer evictions by zip code in 2017, 86% of attorney-represented households were able to stay in their homes, according to the city’s civil justice department.

In 2020, San Francisco officials said 67% of those represented by the city’s right to legal advice were able to stay housed, although the program was still below demand more than a year after its implementation stayed behind after representation.

A 2021 assessment of Cleveland’s first six months of legal counseling also found that 93% of tenant lawyer cases in a housing court avoided evictions.

However, it is difficult to find a causal link between the law itself and fewer evictions when the city programs are so new and the data is limited.

Sophie House, a legal scholar at New York University’s Furman Center and co-author of a study examining the effects of the right to legal counseling in New York City, published late last year, said the investigation failed to conclude whether access to Lawyers The number of lawyers decreased eviction rate without considering other possible factors such as increased tenant reach, other legal services and rental assistance.

Evictions in New York City have declined since 2013, falling nearly 17% between 2018 and 2019, according to the city.

“We have seen a downward trend and hope that in future research we can analyze the role of lawyers in it,” said House.

Devika Balaram, attorney at New York Legal Services Nonprofit Mobilization for Justice, has been hired to represent tenants as part of the city’s new legal counseling program right after graduation in 2019. She works in the Bronx, the district with the highest rate of evictions each year, and before the pandemic there were mostly cases for people who owed rent.

Balaram said she has achieved great success by buying time for her clients through legal maneuvers. If a customer has lost a job and is about to be vacated, a motion to dismiss a case due to a procedural error by a landlord can give the customer two months to find work and catch up on rent. Balaram could also help clients get public debt assistance during this period.

Time, said Balaram, is “the victory that can really be important in putting power back into the hands of the tenant.”

Proponents of the law say that passing the right to legal advice would bring better results for everyone, especially communities that bear the disproportionate brunt of the evictions.

The people and families most likely to be displaced are blacks and Latinos. The 2019 University of California, Berkeley and University of Washington eviction study found that King County’s black adults are more than five times more likely to be evicted than white adults. in Pierce County almost seven times more.

“There are many implications between my county and Pierce County, and the only way to make it fairer is to change that [law]”Said Paula Sardinas, who represents South King County on the Washington Commission on African American Affairs and is a member of the governor’s eviction moratorium task force.

Otherwise, she said, “We will get many mothers and children to become homeless.”

A large part of the landlord’s lobby also supports the bill. Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, testified in favor of the law in the State House.

Waller added that rent support is key to preventing evictions. In February, Washington made an additional $ 355 million federal funds available for rental and utility services, and Kuderer’s bill authorizes landlords to receive rental assistance.

The $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden last month will add an estimated $ 404 million in rental support to Washington state.

“This ability to have this access to legal assistance provides tenants and landlords with added value as it helps resolve cases faster,” said Waller, although he noted that representation for smaller landlords suffering from lack of money always remains Another challenge could be missing rental payments.

Reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this report.