How to solve the housing crisis: Hire more lawyers

Home with foreclosure sign in front yard


In the overheated U.S. housing market, just complaining about a leaky ceiling can land you on the street.
Randy Dillard was living with five kids in a four-bedroom house in the Bronx when he informed his landlord of a persistent drip. Dillard rented his $1,800-a-month home near the New York Botanical Garden with help from the federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher program.
So when his pleas were ignored, the local housing authority administering the vouchers cut off the landlord’s payments. Rather than prompt compliance, the move had the opposite effect: The landlord tried to evict Dillard.Dillard was lucky enough to find free legal help through a local aid program and settled with the landlord. “If I went in without an attorney, I would have been in a shelter,” he said.
That, the New York City Bar Association says, is precisely the point. The solution to a homelessness crisis that has accompanied the drop in affordable housing is to hire more lawyers: Give poor renters an attorney, and landlords will more likely settle eviction cases.
Homelessness will fall, and the strain on city services will be relieved. Or so goes the logic.
Dillard’s victory did put him in rare company. U.S. landlords initiate more than 3 million evictions a year, and most are won the moment they’re filed: That’s because property owners can usually afford lawyers, while most renters can’t.
In New York City, renters who face eviction usually do so without a lawyer, compared with just 2 percent of landlords who represent themselves, according to a paper published last year in the Connecticut Law Review.
It’s about the same all over: In Maryland, 95 percent of tenants argue eviction cases without a lawyer. In Washington, D.C., the figure is 97 percent.
“Tenants who face eviction without counsel simply have no idea what their rights are,” said Andrew Scherer, policy director at the Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School.
While true of most matters involving litigants who represent themselves, it is acutely the case in an area governed by a patchwork of federal, state, and local laws.
Renters can avoid eviction and even win rent cuts if landlords haven’t kept up with repairs. They can also win if landlords missed some procedural steps in filing for eviction, or if they haven’t complied with rules governing affordable apartments.
The bar association, in a new report, said if taxpayers fund legal counsel for poor renters who face eviction, they would learn of those rights, and the knock-on effect would eventually pay for their lawyers—and save the city millions of dollars.
Here’s how that works: Under a bill being considered by the New York City Council, the city would provide funding for free lawyers to renters earning less than $50,000, or twice the local poverty level for a family of four.
According to the advisory firm Stout Risius Ross, which prepared the bar association report, the bill would provide lawyers to defendants in about 129,000 cases, at a cost of $259 million.
In return, the city would save more than a half billion dollars by keeping families out of homeless shelters and by preserving affordable housing. On the whole, the free counsel program would pare $320 million from the city’s budget, even after counting the cost of the programme.

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