Years after we’ve supposedly recovered from the housing crisis, millions of Americans are at risk of losing their homes, and housing is still one of the most troubling aspects of America’s growing inequality problem. The evidence is clear: Rents are rising in cities across the country, and the New York Times reported earlier this month that evictions are soaring nationwide. Tenant-landlord standoffs in U.S. cities are also becoming increasingly common—and bitter.
But despite this bleak overall picture, some tenants are winning eviction battles and ultimately staying in their homes. How? What’s the difference between those who protect their homes and those who are at risk of falling into homelessness? Most often, outcomes depend on one factor: whether tenants have legal help.
Across the country, civil legal aid programs are helping people under threat of evictions understand their rights, navigate the court system, and, most importantly, stay in their homes. It’s just one example of how civil legal aid programs are improving the lives of Americans and increasing access to justice around the country—and it’s made possible by vital funding from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which is marking its fortieth anniversary this year.
Addressing the evictions crisis has become an urgent priority. Skyrocketing rents combined with greater demand for rental housing are leaving more and more Americans without access to affordable homes. In places like Baltimore, public housing units are being privatized without much scrutiny (see report here by the Prospect's Rachel M. Cohen), displacing low-income residents and limiting affordable housing options. Gentrification is transforming life not only on the coasts, but also in unexpected cities across the nation—from Columbia, South Carolina, to Chattanooga, Tennessee; and from Denver to Dallas. In turn, landlords are trying to capitalize on rising real estate prices by forcing low-income tenants to move out, often through dubious tactics, like pressuring residents to accept buyout offers or demanding that they provide proof of citizenship.
Many families that end up in housing court to fight for their homes do so without access to an attorney. This trend is deeply troubling, because research shows how critical it is to have legal help in housing disputes: Two-thirds of low-income tenants who receive full legal representation in eviction cases are able to stay in their homes, compared to one third of unrepresented tenants.
To deal with the flood of new eviction cases, civil legal aid groups across the country are adopting powerful new advocacy strategies to defend tenants. How exactly you fight an eviction is a complex process that varies state by state. Without the legal assistance, tenants often miss crucial steps and find themselves out of a home. For example, at Legal Services of Greater Miami’s Tenants’ Rights Project, a dedicated team of attorneys represents tenants who desperately need legal assistance—especially those in subsidized and public housing, who are among the most vulnerable. In Marin City, California, Bay Area Legal Aid was part of a coalition that successfully fought off efforts to make truancy grounds for evictions from public housing—a transparent attempt to criminalize the poorest members of our society in one of America’s wealthiest in cities.
In large part, it’s because of LSC that organizations like these are able to defend ordinary Americans. Every day, people seek help from civil legal aid programs, many of them funded by LSC, for legal issues that go to the very heart of their safety and security—not just on foreclosures and evictions, but also on domestic violence, child custody hearings, immigration, veterans’ issues, and access to healthcare and other vital public benefits. For many who benefit from the counsel of a lawyer through LSC, the alternatives would be dire. A civil legal aid lawyer can mean the difference between keeping a home or being thrown out on the street, or the difference between securing affordable healthcare or coping with injuries and illness on your own.
As we commemorate the Legal Services Corporation's fourth decade, we must renew our commitment to its mission of advocating for the most vulnerable members of our society. In the case of housing, that means doing everything possible to ensure that ordinary homeowners and renters are able to keep their homes. And increased support for civil legal aid is one of the most cost-effective, powerful solutions.