The efforts to fix the power imbalance as people face eviction in 'rent court'
DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:
Evictions are surging around the U.S. now that emergency protections have ended. In some cities, they are well above pre-pandemic levels. But a growing number of places are trying to help renters avoid eviction by guaranteeing their right to a lawyer. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: If you're facing eviction, a judge in what's known as rent court has the final say. But there's a major power imbalance here. Most landlords have lawyers. Most tenants do not. The pandemic fueled a push to change this and inspired Joseph Loveless to sign on with Maryland Legal Aid.
JOSEPH LOVELESS: Homelessness is a crisis in this country, so an opportunity to help people, you know, stay in their home - it's pretty much trying to stop the bleeding at the source.
LUDDEN: We're speaking outside Baltimore's rent court, where Loveless hopes he'll help someone today. Two years after the city and state passed right-to-counsel laws, there's still no system to match tenants with lawyers. So Loveless and his colleagues arrive early and offer themselves up.
LOVELESS: And we will be making an announcement basically right in front of the door saying, you know, everybody who's waiting to get in, you might want to speak to us first.
LUDDEN: There's no recording inside. But in the hallway, Loveless quickly connects with a renter. They huddle on a bench as he scribbles notes. Then he approaches the attorney for the woman's landlord, and they huddle. When the judge gets to the renter's case - success. It's dismissed, and she can stay put. Back outside, the tenant, Keisha, doesn't want to give her last name for fear of retribution from her landlord. She says she's been stressed financially, helping her daughter get through a devastating illness.
KEISHA: Yes. I missed some payments due to - my daughter almost passed away. (Crying) It's a little bit emotional, but that was the reason why my rent was late.
LUDDEN: Keisha got approved for emergency rent help, some of the last bit of such pandemic aid left in Baltimore, but there'd been a delay getting it. She's grateful to this lawyer she just met barely an hour ago.
KEISHA: No, I just really appreciate it. What's your name, man?
LUDDEN: Maryland is one of four states and more than a dozen cities that have right-to-counsel laws. And these laws are helping people avoid evictions, says John Pollock. He's with the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. Even if renters still have to move out, he says an attorney can help with three crucial decisions. How much back rent must they pay? How much time do they get to find another place? And will the eviction appear on their rental history or credit report?
JOHN POLLOCK: If they don't have legal assistance with those issues, they will lose on all three. And as a result of that, their chance of finding new housing is very, very low.
LUDDEN: But these laws have spread so fast and demand is so great, Pollack says there can be an unexpected challenge - not enough lawyers. New York City and Kansas City are among places that have seen serious shortages.
POLLOCK: In some jurisdictions, the courts are simply saying, oh, there's no attorney available. Well, too bad. We're just going to evict the tenant anyway, which is really a dereliction of duty on their part, in our view.
LUDDEN: In Washington state, where courts actually appoint eviction attorneys, judges will delay a case if the tenant doesn't have one. And to attract more lawyers, some places are boosting salaries and stepping up recruitment. As for landlord groups, they strongly oppose right-to-counsel laws.
NICOLE UPANO: That money would be much better spent if it was helping to avoid eviction in the first place.
LUDDEN: Nicole Upano is with the National Apartment Association.
UPANO: So spending that money towards emergency rental assistance or, if they need longer-term assistance, through housing subsidy programs.
LUDDEN: What's more, Upano says when landlords have to delay evictions for people who simply can't pay, it drives up their costs, which then get passed on to other renters. Back in Maryland, the state is starting to test an eviction hotline.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMBER: Hi. This is Amber from 211 Maryland. How can I help you today?
LUDDEN: The goal is to connect people with an attorney before their court date.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMBER: Do you have an eviction notice at this time?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.
LUDDEN: Right now many renters figure there's no way they'll win, so they skip eviction court, lose by default and get forced out of their homes. Elaine Pollack is with Maryland's United Way Helpline and says it can demystify how evictions work.
ELAINE POLLACK: A lot of times we'll get a call that's just frantic, I need to be out by this date, and then we come to find out it's not an eviction notice after all. It's an intent to file, or it's a warning.
LUDDEN: As more renters around the country get legal help like this, the hope is that more landlords will decide it makes better sense to negotiate with them and the number of eviction filings will go down. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.