Cities helping renters get right to lawyers in housing court

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FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2020, file photo, Taylor Wood and her boyfriend, Ryan Bowser, talk to Wood's 10-year-old daughter, Freya Wood, in Corvallis, Ore. The family, which has been living in the apartment for more than two years, has missed three rent payments during the pandemic. As the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic stretch into 2021, millions of U.S. renters are bracing for the possibility of having to show up in housing court to avoid getting evicted. But unlike their landlords, only a small fraction of them will do so flanked by an attorney. (AP Photo/Sara Cline, File)

WASHINGTON – As the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic stretch into 2021, millions of U.S. renters are bracing for the possibility of having to show up in housing court to avoid getting evicted. But unlike their landlords, only a small fraction of them will do so flanked by an attorney.

Fewer than 10 cities and counties nationwide guarantee tenants the right to a lawyer in housing-related disputes, and for people struggling to make ends meet, an attorney is beyond their means, leaving many to skip their court hearings or walk in knowing they have little chance. Unlike criminal cases, an attorney won't be assigned if someone can't afford one. Legal aid organizations and pro bono lawyers represent many renters every year, but the need outpaces what they can handle.

While housing advocates have primarily pushed for rent relief from the government, experts also expect more cities to join the movement to give tenants the right to an attorney.

“The push for right to counsel preceded the pandemic, but it’s particularly acute and particularly urgent in light of the pandemic, given just the overall precarity that renters are facing,” said Gretchen Purser, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University who specializes in housing, homelessness and urban poverty.

She said legal representation “is going to be one of the most important things that groups around the country can be pushing for.”

Many people owe months of back rent, having lost their jobs or faced mounting medical bills during the health crisis. By January, renters will owe as much as $34 billion, according to estimates by the global investment bank and advisory firm Stout. An estimated 23 million people are at risk of getting evicted.

The federal COVID-19 relief package includes $25 billion for rental assistance and an extension of an eviction moratorium through January.

The moratorium is what Zachary Kettering thought would protect him when he lost two jobs during the pandemic, fell behind on rent and received a notice in October to vacate his one-bedroom apartment in the Dallas suburb of McKinney.