Seattle City Council decided on Monday to provide free legal representation to tenants in the city facing eviction.
Legislation, proponents say, is a small investment that will help people stay in their homes and forestall the ruinous and more expensive consequences of homelessness.
It was passed unanimously on Monday with one notable change – a change by Council Chairman M. Lorena González makes the offer available to tenants who are “needy”.
Need is broadly defined as someone who cannot afford an eviction attorney and who does not require a signature other than the person who signs a form stating that they cannot afford an attorney.
González said the change was necessary to ensure the law weathered legal challenges and was in line with city policies similar to the city’s legal protection fund for local immigrants facing deportation.
Councilor Kshama Sawant, the measure’s main sponsor, opposed the change, arguing that any type of income requirement would be both demeaning for those at risk of eviction and ultimately would mean fewer people accessing the service.
“Even the least invasive, best-appearing means tests are daunting to people,” Sawant said. “It’s a way of getting poor people to dance for a service they need, and it’s deeply humiliating.”
“Everything Councilor Sawant said about means testing is true, it is not before us,” Councilor Debora Juarez said, stressing that tenants do not need evidence or tests to qualify for a lawyer.
“You can call it the happy joy test if you want, but it’s still a means test,” Sawant said.
González’s amendment was accepted 8: 1.
Local studies have shown that by far the most common reason for eviction is failure to pay rent and that it is often just a small debt. According to lawyers, a lawyer can slow down the process and help tenants access services like rental assistance.
In a 2018 report by the city and the Housing Justice Project, the organization that provides legal services to most of the local tenants pending eviction, more than 1,200 evictions in Seattle were investigated in 2017.All evictions were for a month’s rent or Less.
And a previously unpublished study by the Housing Justice Project of evictions in Seattle in 2019 found that 52% of renters with lawyers were able to stay in their homes during their evictions, while only 8% of those without representation stayed in their homes.
“Providing lawyers to tenants pending eviction is a critical and long overdue need I believe,” said Edmund Witter, senior attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “If we are able to work with a tenant, we can accommodate them simply by the fact that we can contact them multiple times.”
Their services generally cost around $ 300 to $ 500 per household, Witter said. They often connect clients to rental assistance programs where the average assistance payment is between $ 1,500 and $ 2,000.
Compare that, Witter said, to the cost of housing a person or family who loses their housing and enters the homeless system – usually at least $ 10,000 and much more to accommodate them.
“It is orders of magnitude more expensive not to have a universal right to advice,” Sawant said.
The legislation does not specify a source of funding. A rough estimate is about $ 750,000 per year, but the city is already spending more than $ 300,000 per year in legal services for evacuated people. So by the estimate, the legislation would cost about $ 400,000 per year.
At least seven other cities across the country already have a “right to legal advice” that lawyers provide for evictions.
While the experiences of these cities are not a direct correlation, it does indicate that Seattle’s estimates of the cost of counseling may be low.
For example, San Francisco, which is slightly larger than Seattle, has budgeted more than $ 10 million for its right to legal advice.
But, Witter said, Washington’s laws that allow evictions much faster than some other states mean there are fewer legal processes. This means both that it can be more difficult for renters to stay in their homes and that the legal bills can add up less.
“Most tenants only have one hearing,” said Witter.
A bill currently running through Olympia legislation (SB 5160) would provide a right to nationwide advice for evacuated people and oblige landlords to offer repayment plans for people who have fallen behind in rent during the pandemic.
The bill was passed by the Senate three weeks ago, largely partisan, with Democratic and Republican support. It’s on the committee in the House. Under state law, the right to free legal advice would only apply to those earning less than 200% of federal poverty, or about $ 53,000 for a family of four, and it would not go into effect for a year.
The state estimated that providing attorneys to anyone displaced nationwide and meeting licensing requirements would cost about $ 11 million a year.
When it’s over, Washington will be the first state to guarantee lawyers for those facing eviction.