Legal support for tenants in eviction proceedings

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

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 paralegal1, such as instruction on the summary eviction process, help completing and filing paperwork, and other efforts to prepare tenants to represent themselves effectively in court2, 3. Although not widely available, such efforts can include social service referrals or be part of comprehensive programs that also offer financial and social services, as in New York City3. Tenants do not have a constitutional right to counsel, unlike criminal defendants4; however, local 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 needs5. Available data suggests up to 90% of tenants may not have representation for eviction proceedings6.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Reduced evictions

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced homelessness

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that legal support for tenants in eviction proceedings reduces evictions among low income tenants1, 5, 7, 8. Tenants who receive full attorney representation have more favorable outcomes than tenants who receive limited legal assistance2, 9. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, particularly any long-term effects on housing stability1.

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. 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 representation5. 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.2, 5. 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 reduced3. Tenants typically experience severe financial distress in the years leading up to an eviction proceeding that often continues afterwards for both evicted and non-evicted tenants10, which complicates the potential long-term effects of legal support for tenants in eviction proceedings1.

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 evictions4. 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 immigrants6.

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 use11. A San Francisco-based study also suggests that legal representation efforts save municipalities money by avoiding evictions and subsequent homeless shelter use9. 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 costs3.

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 clients2.

On average, people who are represented by a lawyer in civil justice cases are more likely to have a favorable outcome than those not represented by a lawyer7, 8. A pilot study of New York City’s Court Navigators Program also suggests that trained and supervised individuals without full formal legal training can effectively provide legal assistance and reduce evictions among otherwise unrepresented tenants12.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated 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 proceedings13, 14. To provide this legal representation, New York City plans to spend $155 million to serve approximately 400,000 New Yorkers annually15, 16. In 2018, San Francisco passed a proposition guaranteeing tenants the right to counsel in any eviction matter17. Also in 2018, Newark, NJ passed an ordinance guaranteeing the right to counsel in eviction proceedings for tenants with incomes under 200% of the federal poverty level18. Several other major cities, including Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Boston, are considering legislation to expand access to legal counsel13.

Many municipalities have approved funding to provide legal representation for low income tenants facing eviction, as in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, PA; and Los Angeles County. Some states such as California have pilot programs that offer funds for eviction defense16.

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a nonprofit that provides grants for civil legal assistance to Americans with low incomes, including legal representation for tenants facing eviction. As of 2019, it has over 800 offices across the U.S.19.

An alternative approach to resolving civil justice issues, including eviction cases, is provided by the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which offers a judge and court system that is set up to resolve issues without requiring legal representation20.

Implementation Resources

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.

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

NCCRC - National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC).


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1 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.

2 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.

3 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.

4 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.

5 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.

6 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.

7 Engler 2010 - Engler R. Connecting self-representation to civil gideon: What existing data reveal about when counsel is most needed. Vol 37. New England School of Law; 2010.

8 Sandefur 2010 - Sandefur RL. The impact of counsel: An analysis of empirical evidence. Vol 9.; 2010.

9 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.

10 NBER-Humphries 2019 - Humphries JE, Mader NS, Tannenbaum DI, Van Dijk WL. NBER working paper series: Does eviction cause poverty? Quasi-experimental evidence from Cook County, IL. National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER). 2019: Working Paper 26139.

11 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.

12 Sandefur 2016 - Sandefur RL, Clarke TM. Roles beyond lawyers: Summary, recommendations and research report of an evaluation of the New York City court navigators program and its three pilot projects. American Bar Foundation (ABF), National Center for State Courts (NCSC); 2016.

13 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.

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

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

16 Stateline-Wiltz 2017 - Wiltz T. How free legal help can prevent evictions. Stateline. States Newsroom. 2017.

17 EDC-Right to counsel - Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC). Tenant right to counsel.

18 NCCRC-Newark right to counsel - National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC). Newark becomes third city to enact right to counsel for evictions. 2019.

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

20 CCI-RHCJC - Center for Court Innovation (CCI). Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC).