The New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a right-to-counsel (RTC) ordinance on May 5, mandating that any person at risk of losing their home in eviction court has the right to an attorney. With the overall eviction rate in New Orleans nearly double the national rate, housing advocates are celebrating this triumph in the fight for sustainable renter protections. Meanwhile, the Detroit City Council also voted unanimously to extend right to counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction. Renters in Detroit with incomes below 200% of federal poverty levels who are facing evictions or involved in other proceedings (e.g., mortgage or property tax foreclosures) will be able to receive free legal representation.
In 2020, Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative’s (JPNSI’s) Eviction Court Monitoring Program released a report highlighting the impact of evictions on Black residents in New Orleans. While 59% of the city’s population is Black, court monitors found that 82.2% of eviction proceedings involved Black tenants. At the same time, 56.8% of eviction proceedings were against Black women, who in Louisiana face the highest wage gap in the nation, making only 47 cents for every dollar earned by a non-Hispanic white male.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated structural inequities permeating the housing market and has led to a need for more stable housing access to ensure the health of the public and of individual renters. Housing advocates in the state of Louisiana, including NLIHC partners, worked vigorously to build relationships with stakeholders in the city amid the crisis. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), an organization providing free legal services for low-income people, initiated a conversation with the local eviction court and asked that an eviction desk be established in the courthouse. With the approval of the judge, this push succeeded in February 2021. At the same time, SLLS strengthened its relationship with the city and the court while providing support to tenants and education to landlords about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). As a result of advocate mobilization across the region, the mayor and City Council agreed to fully fund an RTC program for the 2022 budget year, paving the way for secured funding for renter protections in the future.
“Studies show again and again that tenants with lawyers have dramatically better outcomes in eviction court than tenants without lawyers”, said Elizabeth Harvey, a staff attorney with SLLS. “We’re thrilled that our city is investing in leveling the playing field by ensuring that New Orleans tenants don’t have to defend evictions on their own.”
The ordinance creating the program outlines the rules and eligibility for participation, explaining who is covered and how renters should receive notice of the program. The ordinance also creates reporting requirements to help track effectiveness and provides assurance that the program will exist in the future, making it easier to hire new staff.
“Most importantly, the ordinance lets families know that the city won’t pull the rug out from under them after only one year,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “Everyone deserves access to an attorney before potentially being forced from their home, so we’re proud to see the city doing the right thing for our majority-renter residents,” she explained. (Tenants can access legal assistance from SLLS through the organization’s website.)
Like New Orleans, Detroit sees thousands of eviction cases every year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the district court handled on average 30,000 eviction cases annually. In most of these proceedings, tenants do not have legal representation, while their landlords usually do. Detroit’s new RTC program will receive initial funding through federal COVID-19 relief funds and philanthropic gifts. The infusion of short-term funding is meant to establish the program and help it get off the ground. Questions remain about long-term funding. (General fund dollars cannot be used to support the effort.)
The creation of the RTC program in Detroit came after a three-year campaign by a coalition of nonprofit and grassroots organizations. Advocates will continue pushing for RTC during the implementation phase to ensure that the city contracts with agencies and attorneys who are experienced and capable of providing high-quality counsel. Advocates will also work with the city to identify long-term funding sources.
Tenants interested in remaining up to date on the details of Detroit’s RTC program should view this website run by the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department.