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Seattle’s City Council Gives Poor Residents Right to Eviction Attorneys

The city joins the national trend of guaranteeing counsel in eviction court, which data shows can save people’s homes.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Seattle’s City Council Gives Poor Residents Right to Eviction Attorneys

The city joins the national trend of guaranteeing counsel in eviction court, which data shows can save people’s homes.

Today, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to guarantee all indigent city residents the right to an attorney during eviction proceedings—a move that could drastically help keep people in their homes.

“Every eviction is an act of violence,” Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the bill’s sponsor, said during the meeting today. She added: “Every eviction adds to our community’s suffering.”

While Americans have the Constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled—in both 1981 and 2011—that Americans do not have the same rights in civil court. This means that, in a significant number of cases around the country, tenants who can neither afford to pay rent nor an attorney often don’t know how to properly exercise their rights or fight against potentially unlawful evictions in court.

“The cases are not simple,” John Pollock, the coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, told The Appeal last month. “The tenant may have paid the rent and the landlord may be saying they didn’t. … If the tenant didn’t pay the rent, they may have defenses as to why they didn’t pay.”

Seattle is already experiencing a high level of homelessness. A recent report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development ranks Seattle as having the third highest homeless population among major cities. But according to Eviction Lab, evictions can have severe consequences for people besides removing them from their homes. Those who are evicted often lose their belongings and their jobs, are subsequently forced into even worse housing situations, and are more likely to develop depression or other mental illness as a result.

“The evidence strongly indicates that eviction is not just a condition of poverty, it is a cause of it,” Eviction Lab writes.

Seattle follows New York City; Newark, New Jersey; Boulder, Colorado; Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and San Francisco in making such a move. Data already shows that some of those programs have had a significant positive impact for people facing eviction. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, signed his city’s right-to-counsel bill in 2017, and from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020, 86 percent of households with attorneys facing eviction were allowed to stay in their homes. (New York City’s legislation is currently being phased in over time.) San Francisco’s right-to-counsel bill passed in 2018; the following year, new eviction filings dropped by 10 percent and 67 percent of households with attorneys successfully fought off their evictions.

Seattle currently contracts with The Housing Justice Project to provide legal representation for tenants facing eviction. The bill that passed today says that “To make the right to counsel effective long-term, the City will need to commit ongoing funding to attorneys equipped to represent tenants.” Earlier this month, the Seattle Times reported that, in 2019, 52 percent of people with attorneys in Seattle eviction court did not lose their homes—but only 8 percent of people without attorneys successfully fought their evictions. During the meeting, Sawant said that more than 1,200 evictions had been filed in Seattle before the pandemic began, and more than 300 have been filed during the pandemic despite the ongoing moratorium.

The measure was originally written to award the right to counsel to all people facing an eviction, regardless of their income levels. But council members voted 8-1 today to amend the bill to guarantee attorneys only to people deemed indigent. Some members worried that guaranteeing the right to all residents would cost the city too much money.

The bill, however, does not state what income level qualifies someone as “indigent.” Councilmember Lisa Herbold claimed that if “just one person” who can afford an attorney uses a free city attorney instead, it could somehow “bring down” the entire program. Sawant, the only councilmember to vote against the amendment, disagreed.

The amendment, Sawant said, amounts to “asking people to jump through some sort of hoop to qualify.” She added, “People should have universal rights.”

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