The system is rigged: Let’s provide legal help for Newark evictions
If we can acknowledge that decent housing is a fundamental necessity, then we can also agree that your home is worth a fair legal fight when it is under threat.
Too often, however, families that face eviction are helpless and overmatched in the cattle call of Housing Court. While 90 percent of landlords in eviction proceedings show up with a lawyer, the vast majority of tenants do not have one – if they show up at all.
You can figure out the rest: Since the only weapon against dislocation is an attorney – which are especially scarce or unaffordable in New Jersey, where the Legal Services budget has been hacked to pieces – we have an eviction epidemic, especially in the lives of the urban poor.
Mayor Ras Baraka knows how housing instability causes convulsions throughout a community – in schools, in public safety institutions, in demand for human services – so he has proposed making Newark the second city in the U.S. to provide free legal assistance to low-income residents facing eviction.
Any mayor would be alarmed by these numbers: There were 17,000 evictions filed in Newark in 2016, and very few tenants had legal help. Rutgers Law Review published a study of 40,000 eviction actions in Essex County found that in only 80 cases (two-tenths of one percent) were tenants able to present a defense, leaving the rest vulnerable to substandard living conditions, unfair rent burdens, and wrongful evictions.
Yes, a lawyer makes a difference: A tenant with counsel is 10 times more likely to prevail in court than tenants without it, a Cal-Berkeley Law School study reveals.
Newark to provide free legal aid for low-income renters facing eviction
The city council must approve the plan, and a substantial funding source needs to be established, because the legal help must go beyond court representation. It should entail all forms of advocacy, such as determining whether conditions require repair, negotiating with landlords, and dealing with court filings.
It was appropriate that Mayor Bill de Blasio joined Tuesday’s rollout, because New York City is starting to figure it out. It had no other choice: Between 1994 and 2014, there was a 115-percent increase in homelessness in de Blasio’s city. Knowing that the best way to address homelessness is to prevent it before it occurs, de Blasio formed a coalition under the city’s Office of Civil Justice to provide legal help for tenants facing eviction.
Here’s what they have learned during the phase-in: In the first 10 zip codes chosen for expanded legal help, court representation in eviction cases tripled, and evictions are down 27 percent. The burden on courts also eased: There were 17,000 fewer eviction cases heard in 2017 than in 2013.
In hard numbers, 70,000 New Yorkers have remained in their homes as a result of decreased evictions since right to counsel was initiated.
That’s like saving a medium-sized city from dissolving into despair, because the real-life impact is profound: Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond – whose seminal "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" won the Pulitzer – reminds us that eviction’s fallout includes "home, possessions, and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness."
New York’s success has earned the attention of Gov. Murphy, whose transition team advocated a similar program for the state. We hope he keeps an eye on Newark’s progress, because eviction is no longer a silent epidemic, and its eradication should not depend on the size of a tenant’s wallet.
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Buildings in Lower Manhattan provide a backdrop to the Katyn Memorial seen from Exchange Place in Jersey City.