For many of Maryland’s 805,000 renter households, the right to an attorney could mean the difference between keeping and losing a home. According to Maryland’s Attorney General, landlords in the state file over 650,000 evictions annually, threatening thousands of renting families with the social, financial, and psychological devastation of eviction without the protection of counsel.
A new poll from Data for Progress and The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, shows that Maryland voters want to reform this fundamental power imbalance by guaranteeing a right to counsel for those facing eviction, similar to the right to counsel for criminal cases:
Seventy-three percent of Maryland voters—including 80 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents, and 63 percent of Republicans—would back such a measure, with support further cutting across age, gender, education, and racial demographic categories.
Polling & Findings
Each year, thousands of Maryland residents are forced to navigate eviction proceedings without an attorney, facing landlords who are almost always represented by counsel. While people in criminal prosecutions are provided with a public defender if they cannot afford an attorney, Maryland law provides no similar right in eviction proceedings, where the law favors property owners and where adverse outcomes can lead to homelessness, chronic health problems, unemployment, poverty, and other life-altering consequences. Studies show that, in many cases, access to counsel means the difference between successfully fighting eviction and being pushed out onto the street.
As the COVID-19 pandemic amplified stark and longstanding housing inequality, Maryland legislators proposed a bill to correct this inequity and unfairness in the legal system. The proposal would establish a new position in the state attorney general’s office to facilitate legal services for those facing eviction, along with an evictions defense fund and a 15-member “Right to Counsel in Evictions Task Force” to recommend improvements in implementation. The bill is currently under review by the Maryland House Judiciary Committee. If enacted, it would guarantee access to counsel to all Maryland households earning less than 50 percent of the state median income—just under $48k in 2019.
Last December, Baltimore became the seventh U.S. city to approve a “right to counsel” for evictions bill, at a time when 99 percent of Baltimore eviction defendants lacked representation, compared to only 4 percent of landlords. Just weeks before, Boulder, Colorado voters backed a $1.9 million program by ballot measure, to be funded through a $75 fee on landlords. In New York City, where the nation’s first right to counsel program was enacted in 2018, over 84 percent of tenants with legal counsel avoided eviction. A report on Cleveland’s program showed a 93 percent success rate for low-income tenants seeking to remain in their homes.
While the Maryland bill is projected to cost $28 million, its sponsors argue that it could ultimately save the state up to $90 million in other social spending such as homelessness services.
From February 26 to March 2, 2021, Data for Progress conducted a survey of 669 likely voters in Maryland using web panel respondents. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, and voting history. The survey was conducted in English. The margin of error is ±4 percentage points.