Legal support for tenants in eviction proceedings

Legal support in eviction proceedings includes full representation for tenants with low incomes by an attorney in court or limited legal assistance from an attorney or paralegal (Holl 2016), such as instruction on the summary eviction process, help completing and filing paperwork, and other efforts to prepare tenants to represent themselves effectively in court (Pattanayak 2013, Seedco 2010). Such efforts can include social service referrals or be part of comprehensive programs that also offer financial and social services (Seedco 2010). Tenant-defendants are not entitled to legal representation, unlike criminal defendants (); however, government policies can establish a right to legal counsel when a family or an individual with low income faces loss of shelter, sustenance, or other basic human needs (BBA 2012). Available data suggests up to 90% of tenants may not have representation for eviction proceedings ().

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Reduced evictions

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Reduced homelessness

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that legal support for tenants in eviction proceedings reduces evictions among low income tenants (Holl 2016, BBA 2012). Tenants who receive full attorney representation have more favorable outcomes than tenants who receive limited legal assistance (Pattanayak 2013, CPSPI 2014). Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, particularly over the long-term (Holl 2016).

In a Quincy, Massachusetts-based study, two-thirds of tenants with full legal representation remained in their homes, compared to one-third of tenants without legal representation (BBA 2012). More tenants with legal representation who could not remain in their homes were able to move on their own terms and timelines than peers without legal representation (BBA 2012). Legal support in eviction proceedings can also reduce homelessness, protect tenants’ rights, and substantially increase financial benefits for tenants by cancelling or reducing past due rent balances, reducing damages or fines owed, etc. (BBA 2012, Pattanayak 2013). A pilot study of the South Bronx-based Housing Help Program, which provides low income tenants in housing court with holistic legal, financial, and social service interventions, indicates that eviction judgements were prevented for 86% of clients, housing loss was prevented for 91% of clients, and homeless shelter use was reduced (Seedco 2010).

Experts suggest legal representation for tenants with low incomes involved in eviction proceedings can improve health equity and help tenants avoid the negative health consequences of eviction proceedings (). Experts also suggest that the current lack of legal services for tenants with low incomes in eviction proceedings disproportionately harms racial and ethnic minorities, women, and immigrants ().

Studies in Massachusetts and New York City suggest legal support for tenants to help prevent evictions costs less than the cost to municipalities for homeless shelter use (). A San Francisco-based study also suggests that legal representation efforts save municipalities money by avoiding evictions and subsequent homeless shelter use (CPSPI 2014). A cost-benefit analysis of the Housing Help Program in the South Bronx shows a 64% return on investment and more than $725,000 annually in avoided homeless shelter costs (Seedco 2010).

Legal assistance programs in a variety of settings may be able to increase their effectiveness by investing resources in outreach, intake, and screening for potential clients (Pattanayak 2013).

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

In 2017, New York City enacted the first legislation in the country that provides legal representation for all income-eligible tenants in eviction proceedings (Furman Center-NYC access to counsel 2018, RTCNYC Coalition). To provide this legal representation, New York City plans to spend $155 million to serve approximately 400,000 New Yorkers annually (Palacio 2017, PEW-Wiltz 2017). Several other major cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, Cleveland, and Boston, are considering legislation to expand access to legal counsel (Furman Center-NYC access to counsel 2018).

Many municipalities have approved funding to provide legal representation for low income tenants facing eviction, as in Washington DC; Philadelphia, PA; and Los Angeles County. Some states such as California have pilot programs that offer funds for eviction defense (PEW-Wiltz 2017).

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a nonprofit that provides grants for civil legal assistance to low income Americans, including legal representation for tenants facing eviction. As of 2019, it has over 800 offices across the US (LSC-At a glance).

Implementation Resources

RTCNYC-Toolkit - Right to Counsel NYC (RTCNYC) Coalition. The right to counsel toolkit.

Furman Center-NYC access to counsel 2018 - Been V, Rand D, Summers N, Yager J. Implementing New York City’s universal access to counsel program: Lessons for other jurisdictions. New York University Furman Center. 2018.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Holl 2016 - Holl M, van den Dries L, Wolf JRLM. Interventions to prevent tenant evictions: A systematic review. Health and Social Care in the Community. 2016;24(5):532-546.

Pattanayak 2013 - Pattanayak CW, Greiner DJ, Hennessy J. The limits of unbundled legal assistance: A randomized study in a Massachusetts district court and prospects for the future. Harvard Law Review. 2013;126:901-989.

Abel 2010* - Abel LK, Vignola S. Economic and other benefits associated with the provision of civil legal aid. Seattle Journal for Social Justice. 2010;9(1):139-167.

Greenberg 2016* - Greenberg D, Gershenson C, Desmond M, et al. Discrimination in evictions: Empirical evidence and legal challenges. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. 2016;51:115-158.

BBA 2012 - Boston Bar Association Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel (BBA). The importance of representation in eviction cases and homelessness prevention. 2012:1-10.

Seedco 2010 - Hoffman L, Rodriguez LM, Seigel B, et al. Housing help program: Homelessness prevention pilot final report. Structured Employment Economic Development Corporation (SEEDCO). 2010:1-53.

CPSPI 2014 - John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest (CPSPI) Stanford Law School. San Francisco right to civil counsel pilot program documentation report. 2014:1-31.

Gold 2016* - Gold AE. No home for justice: How eviction perpetuates health inequity among low-income and minority tenants. Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy. 2016;XXIV(1):59-87.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

RTCNYC Coalition - Right to Counsel NYC (RTCNYC) Coalition. About the RTCNYC Coalition.

PEW-Wiltz 2017 - Wiltz T. How free legal help can prevent evictions. The Pew Charitable Trusts, Stateline Article. 2017.

Palacio 2017 - Palacio H, Banks S. Turning the tide on homelessness in New York City. New York City Government. 2017:1-114.

LSC-At a glance - Legal Services Corporation (LSC). How we work: LSC-2015 at a glance.

Furman Center-NYC access to counsel 2018 - Been V, Rand D, Summers N, Yager J. Implementing New York City’s universal access to counsel program: Lessons for other jurisdictions. New York University Furman Center. 2018.

Date Last Updated

Mar 7, 2019