At Risk of Losing Your Lease? A Legal Battle Isn’t the Answer

If you don't pay your rent, can you still stay in your rental property? Or is that landlord going kick you to the curb? It's a fear that low-income families face in difficult times. Rent courts are tough. But is getting a lawyer the best course of action?

If you don’t pay your rent, can you still stay in your rental property? Or is that landlord going kick you to the curb? It’s a fear that low-income families face in difficult times. Rent courts are tough. The legal battle is often reliant on a sympathetic judge and a very narrow window to find the money to pay rent before the sheriff’s department comes to get your stuff.

Eviction is a major cause of stress for everyone involved. For renters, especially parents with kids, the thought of losing the roof over your head is enough to keep you up at night. For independent landlords, it’s a scramble to cover the mortgage when the income stream has dried up. For everyone, there is the experience of material hardship and worsening health.

So what if the city came in and decided to help renters out — by paying the legal fee associated with getting a lawyer to help the renter in court? It would probably keep more people in their homes, but is it the best solution?

Only 10 percent of tenants get a lawyer when they’re facing a rent court dispute. Landlords have higher representation. Having a lawyer would probably help renters, but is it the city’s job to pick a side in a contractual dispute?

In fact, cities (and the parties in the disupte) may benefit more from helping people to stay where they are, but a better way to ensure that people have homes may not be to feed the legal system. Rather, it’s to use that legal fund to offer emergency assistance to keep renters afloat during difficult times.

A proposed program backed by members of Washington, D.C.’s City Council would have the city pay for legal representation for tenants who are facing eviction. It’s not a federal issue, but a local one, and it matters because D.C. is extremely expensive, and it’s hard for people who live on the edge to get quality, safe housing.

But think about it. Paying for a lawyer isn’t quite the investment in housing proponents wish it to be. Homelessness researcher Kevin Corinth says the idea not only has a strong likelihood of backfiring, but also of creating worse consequences than the harm of eviction.

Yes, legal assistance would reduce the risk of tenants losing eviction battles in court. It would probably even reduce the number of people threatened with eviction in the first place if landlords think they will have a legal battle on their hands.
But here’s the problem. Making it more costly and difficult to evict tenants who do not pay their rent makes it more expensive for landlords to rent out apartments. That could end up increasing the cost of housing in a city where escalating rents are already straining the budgets of low income families.
But an even more insidious consequence is possible. Landlords could decide that it’s no longer worth renting out apartments to people they believe are at risk of missing rent payments. Spotty employment histories, criminal records, and past evictions could be red flags that disqualify people from housing altogether.

In other words, it would be harder for anyone with a blot on his or her record to find a home, and would effectively drive lower-income city dwellers out of the marketplace altogether.

Emergency assistance isn’t an add-on to housing vouchers, and it’s not a permanent handout. The best part is that it helps the people who need a hand up, preventing them from ending up on a family members’ couch or a homeless shelter while raising the cost of living for every other renter. It would keep people in their units without distorting the rental market.

Emergency assistance programs have been tried and succeeded in Chicago and New York, and D.C. would benefit from getting its own pilot program lined up.

Unscrupulous landlords need to be watched and stopped. But, as Corinth states, “an entitlement to legal assistance in eviction cases threatens the basic ideal that the city should provide opportunity to everyone.”

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