Tenants facing eviction fare better under NYC legal aid program: study

Diving brief:

  • Low-income tenants who received free legal representation under New York City’s Universal Access Program fared better in housing court cases in which they were evicted, according to a study recently published by the Department of Economics at Princeton University.
  • Tenants who received legal advice under the scheme passed in 2017 were much less likely to receive a Housing Court judgment requiring them to either pay rent or be evicted. Likewise, they were less likely to have an eviction warrant issued against them and owed less rent arrears following a judgment.
  • Several cities have since followed New York’s lead by adopting similar programs that provide free legal aid to low-income tenants facing eviction. “Without the program, landlords generally have legal representation, unlike tenants. This creates an imbalance that favors landlords,” the co-author said. Janet Currie, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton.

Overview of the dive:

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government declared an eviction moratorium to prevent an eviction and homelessness crisis. This moratorium expired in August 2021 after the United States Supreme Court overturned it and the remaining state moratoria have since expired. Meanwhile, many cities are facing a housing affordability crisis that has made it difficult for many renters to make their monthly payments.

Deportations increased steadily after the federal moratorium expired. According to the Princeton University Eviction Lab, which tracks evictions in six states and 31 cities across the United States, more than 900,000 evictions have been filed in those jurisdictions alone since mid-March 2020.

Evictions can lead to homelessness. Evictees often lose their security deposit and many of their belongings, Currie said. They may also not have the first and last month rent so they can’t moving to another location and other temporary housing options such as hotels would quickly deplete their savings, she said.

Although most evictees do not immediately move to a shelter or onto the streets, eviction creates housing instability, which is linked to a number of negative impacts such as reduced physical and mental health, food insecurity, employment problems and poorer performance in housing. school, added co-author Michael Cassidy, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton. These impacts “sooner or later could snowball into an increased risk of homelessness,” he said.

Housing cases in court can be fast, messy and difficult for people unfamiliar with the procedures, Currie said.

There is an inherent power imbalance in housing courts, in which low-income tenants are at a disadvantage when responding to legal action brought by their landlord, said Natasha Leonard, senior program specialist for housing and development. community development at the National League of Cities. Between 80% and 90% of homeowners in many cities and states have legal representation in court compared to about 3% to 10% of tenants, she said.

“The importance of this is demonstrated by the results of the trials,” Leonard said.

According to the report, 68% of New York residents are renters. In 2017, the city became the first in the United States to enact legislation creating a program that provides universal legal representation for low-income tenants in Housing Court. Several cities have since followed suit with similar programs offering free legal aid, including Newark, New Jersey, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Santa Monica, California and Boulder, Colorado.

Outside of these programs, “low-income tenants often have few other places to get help with their legal matters and may also have few options in case they [are] kicked out,” Currie said. “Non-white, non-citizen populations may also be more fearful of lawsuits and less likely to actively fight them in the absence of legal representation.

To assess the effects of the program, Princeton researchers assessed housing court records of 727,703 cases, the report said.

The tenants in their sample were 88% more likely to have had legal representation through the program. Tenants who were eligible for assistance once the program was in place and secured by a lawyer were also 62% less likely to face possession judgments, meaning the court found they had to either pay their rent or face eviction. They were also 72% less likely to be issued eviction warrants and saw an 85% reduction in money judgments against them for debts such as rent arrears. They also found evidence that lawyers reduced the likelihood of evictions.

Many cities across the United States are currently exploring or adopting some form of legal representation for tenants as part of their broader efforts to prevent evictions and hijacking, Leonard said. However, the approach varies depending on the needs of the community, the size of the city and its existing legal aid infrastructure, as well as national and local legal frameworks and available funding.

“We’ve seen time and time again that having proper legal representation can mean the difference between eviction — sometimes homelessness — and reaching a settlement for tenants,” Leonard said. “Legal representation programs like New York City’s work to address this disparity and help ensure fairer court proceedings and outcomes.”

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