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The Movement to Guarantee Legal Help for Struggling Renters Is ‘Taking Root’ in Connecticut

Only 7 percent of tenants in the state have legal representation in eviction proceedings. A bill in the Connecticut house is trying to change that.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

When Sabrina’s partner lost his job as a truck driver, the pair had to move their family out of their home in Bristol, Connecticut, to somewhere with cheaper rent. They found a place in the city that they could afford on Sabrina’s income as a finance manager at a Toyota dealership for them, their two teenage children, and their many pets. They signed the lease in February 2020 and moved in March 1. Sabrina lost her job on March 15.

“We went from a household, this is no lie, that was making easy … between seven and eight grand a month,” she said, to “I could barely fill up the fridge,” said Sabrina. (The Appeal is using only her first name to protect her privacy.) 

Sabrina had always paid her rent a day before it was due, but by July, her family couldn’t pay. In November, she found eviction paperwork hanging from the doorknob. It stated that she and her family would have to leave by Christmas Eve. 

“To go from not having to worry about paying rent to going to you don’t know where you’re going to lay your head,” she said, with tears in her voice, “that’s a problem for me.”

Sabrina didn’t know what to do and had never been through an eviction. But unlike in criminal cases, she wasn’t guaranteed an attorney to help her navigate the process: Only a handful of cities and—as of last month—one state have enshrined in law the right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. 

“Just as we guarantee a right to counsel if you’re indigent facing the criminal justice system, there should be a similar right to counsel when you’re dealing with issues like evictions that really speak to fundamental personal stability and present some very serious long-term consequences,” said Cecil Thomas, staff attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pressure in Connecticut and elsewhere to enact this protection for more low-income tenants. When the economy collapsed, millions of Americans were suddenly at risk of eviction and “what it means to lose someone’s home just became so visceral and real,” said Melissa Marichal, staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Federal, state, and local eviction bans were complicated to navigate, which illuminated  how byzantine the law is, and landlords tried repeatedly to skirt the bans and remove people from their homes.

“People are seeing the ways in which landlords behave in a system when there’s no lawyer on the other side,” said John Pollock, coordinator at the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

The movement for right to counsel accelerated in 2017, according to advocates, after New York became the first major city to pass and begin implementing the guarantee in limited neighborhoods. The City Council passed a bill Thursday expanding the right to counsel citywide.

The push there came from community members in the Bronx who talked about “feeling belittled, feeling humiliated, feeling like their rights were being taken away in the courts,” said Susanna Blankley, coalition coordinator for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. 

Lawyers in the city had long discussed the need for a right to counsel, but tenant organizing tipped the scales. In 2014, organizers formed a citywide coalition that included unions, criminal justice activists, and those advocating for seniors, homeless people, and people with disabilities. Organizers were able to pressure the City Council in ways that legal aid lawyers couldn’t and held out for the bill they wanted, refusing to compromise on the mayor’s original insistence on leaving out public housing cases. “We were ready to protest a bill if we didn’t win a bill that was essentially what we wanted,” Blankley said.

Their victory “really galvanized things nationally,” Pollock said, given New York City’s size and eviction rate. And New York became a proving ground for the movement. In New York City, 86 percent of tenants who are represented by lawyers have been able to stay in their homes, while the number of eviction filings has declined. “The only thing that would impact landlord behavior in that way is when you have a fundamental right, when it applies to everybody,” said Blankley.

Before the pandemic, four other cities—Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Newark, New Jersey—had enacted right-to-counsel programs. But since March of last year, four more—Baltimore; Boulder, Colorado; Louisville, Kentucky; and Seattle—passed laws ensuring that low-income tenants are provided counsel in eviction proceedings. 

Now states are joining in. On April 22, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a bill that requires the state to provide eviction attorneys for individuals making $25,760 or less annually or for families of four making $53,000. Maryland lawmakers passed a right-to-counsel bill that now waits for Governor Larry Hogan’s signature.

Sabrina’s home state, Connecticut, is also considering right-to-counsel legislation. A bill in the state legislature would ensure a right to counsel beginning in October for residents making 80 percent or less of state median income, receiving public benefits, or struggling to secure legal representation for other reasons. 

In 2016, four of the state’s major cities—Waterbury, Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven—were among the top 70 evicting cities in the country. Yet just 7 percent of tenants in the state have legal representation in eviction proceedings, compared to 81 percent of landlords. The default rate in cases where tenants fail to appear—meaning the court sided with the landlord—has ranged from 42 to 34 percent since 2007. “Effectively, more than one in three tenants [in the state] is losing their home or eviction case without having had the opportunity to appear in court and present a defense,” Thomas, the Legal Aid attorney, said. Even tenants who show up don’t have much time: It took just 26 days, at the median, for cases to be resolved in 2019.

Tenants often can’t parse the dense jargon of eviction paperwork and, without a lawyer, don’t know what defenses they could raise or what their options are, Thomas noted. Many receive the first notice and wrongly assume they have to leave.

In Sabrina’s case, she tried calling 211 but couldn’t get any useful information. At the first mediation session with the landlord she showed up alone, without a lawyer, and she worries that she didn’t do enough to fight for more time or push back on the landlord’s demands.

Ten days before she was due to be removed from her home, she called a legal aid office, and the person she spoke to broke down the entire eviction process and gave her step-by-step instructions. The person told her to request a motion to reopen and submit a declaration form saying that she should be protected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium, which in March was extended to June 30. “Nobody else told me that,” Sabrina said.

“Having someone in your corner at that moment who’s familiar with the process and can tell you what the potential outcomes are is incredibly valuable,” Thomas said.

A Connecticut task force began examining access to legal help in civil cases in 2016. The first recommendation was to guarantee a right to counsel. But as in New York City, it was the involvement of organizers—in this case, local Democratic Socialists of America chapters—that pushed it forward. Last June, the Central Connecticut and Western Connecticut DSA chapters joined the Cancel Rent Connecticut coalition and started their own housing justice working groups.

People are seeing the ways in which landlords behave in a system when there’s no lawyer on the other side.

John Pollock coordinator at the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel

After meeting with lawyers, the DSA chapters launched a petition to gather support from other organizations, and within the first few weeks about 25 signed on, said Stephen Poland, a DSA organizer. The list is now 46 groups long, including Connecticut chapters of the AFL-CIO, the Working Families Party, and Make the Road. “Things started to move really quickly,” Poland said. 

Now, if the legislature passes the bill and Governor Ned Lamont signs it, tenants will be able “to have a real, fair chance to defend their case and to get results that allow them to stay more often in their homes or to have a more stable transition to new, permanent housing,” Marichal said.  It will also show “that [right to counsel] can be done anywhere,” Poland said. 

And Pollock is seeing a “huge groundswell of support” for right-to-counsel protections, he said. He gets calls almost every day from lawyers, politicians, and activists asking how to get their own legislation started in places as varied as Indiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Blankley is receiving the same level of interest in the campaign she helped wage in New York City and the toolkit they created. “It’s taking root all over,” Pollock said. The movement is also helped by the fact that the federal government has sent states billions in relief funds during the pandemic that can be used to set up and fund right-to-counsel programs. 

It’s not just about keeping people in their homes but shifting the power dynamics between landlords and tenants. A right to counsel, advocates say, gives people the ability to press for all of their rights with less fear of losing their homes. It also indicates to tenants that “this is a collective problem,” said Khadija Hussain, a Connecticut DSA activist. “This is not something you should ever have to go through alone.”

Sabrina, however, still had to try keeping her housing on her own. Thanks to the advice she got from calling the legal aid office, she was able to get a court date for late April to determine whether she qualifies for protection under the CDC moratorium. She once again had to appear without a lawyer at her side; the judge gave her until May 29 to leave.

She refuses to move into the “rat in the holes,” as she put it, that are willing to accept someone with a pending eviction on her record and no current income besides unemployment benefits and rental assistance. “There’s no way in hell that I’m going to do that to my kids.” But she also knows that she could very well be forced out of her home at a time when all the shelters have told her they are full.

She believes everything would have gone differently had she just had a lawyer at her side. Without the stroke of luck of reaching legal services, “I would have never known” what to do, she said. That’s why she thinks it’s essential that everyone be guaranteed access to legal help. “You have to have somebody to advocate for you.”

Update: This article was updated to include the judge’s decision in Sabrina’s case. It was also updated to reflect that 46 organizations have now signed on to the DSA petition.