Seattle considers creating a right to free legal counsel for those facing eviction

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Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant  has proposed the city provide those facing eviction free legal counsel.    (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Anyone evicted in Seattle will be eligible for a free attorney, according to a new city council proposal.

No source of funding is specified in the legislation and estimates of the cost of providing legal services to tenants affected by an eviction are rough.

But the impact, proponents said, would be great.

Edmund Witter, senior attorney for the Housing Justice Project, which provides much of the legal representation of people displaced in King County, said their services generally cost around $ 300 to $ 500 per household. 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.

“I think the math is pretty simple,” said Witter.

A previously unpublished study by the Housing Justice Project of evictions in Seattle in 2019 found that 52% of tenants with lawyers were able to stay in their homes during their evictions, while only 8% of those without representation stayed in their homes.

Councilor Kshama Sawant’s proposal was passed 3: 1 by the Committee on Sustainability and Tenants’ Rights on Thursday. Councilors Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Sawant voted yes; Councilor Alex Pedersen voted no. A full city council vote could take place on March 15th.

“In defending the most basic human need in life – the right to a safe home – for-profit landlords totally exceed tenants,” said Sawant. “This legislation gives tenants a chance to fight against corporate landlords.”

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 90% of landlords are legally represented in eviction proceedings, while less than 10% of renters do so.

Currently, seven other cities across the country – New York, Newark, New Jersey, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Boulder, Colorado – have laws that provide free legal advice to anyone facing an eviction.

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.

The Boulder Act in a city about one-seventh the size of Seattle was only passed last year and provides $ 1.9 million annually for legal representation and rental assistance for evicts. San Francisco, which is slightly larger than Seattle, has budgeted more than $ 10 million for its right to legal advice. Baltimore, which is slightly smaller than Seattle but has a higher eviction rate, also enacted its right to legal advice last year. It did so without a city cost estimate, but an investment bank and advisor estimated the annual cost of legal representation to be $ 5.7 million. The same study estimated that the right to free consultation would bring benefits or cost savings of $ 36 million to the city and state.

A bill currently running through Olympia legislation (SB 5160) would provide a right to counseling for those displaced nationwide and oblige landlords to offer repayment plans for those who have fallen behind in rent during the pandemic are.

The bill was passed by the Senate on Thursday 29th and 20th Thursday, largely partisan, with the support of Democrats and Republicans. But even if it did become law, the right to free legal advice only applies to those who earn less than 200% of federal poverty, or about $ 53,000 for a family of four, and it wouldn’t 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.

Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords, said they generally support the right to access to a lawyer. He said that without an income eligibility for the program, it could be in violation of the state constitution, which prohibits cities from giving money to individuals “except for necessary assistance to the poor and infirm.”

According to Waller, assisting with the rental is more important and a better use of the funds than providing legal advice to tenants.

About 4,500 evictions are filed in King County each year, but the number of actual evictions is much higher, Witter said. This is because a tenant is usually presented with an eviction notice before anything is brought to court. This is often enough to encourage renters who are suspicious of having an eviction in their acts to leave without contesting it.

And the vast majority of evictions are not due to bad behavior or damage to an apartment. You are because the tenant does not have enough money.

A 2018 report by the city and Housing Justice Project that examined more than 1,200 evictions in Seattle in 2017 found that 86% were for non-payment of rent and 52% of all evictions were for one month’s rent or less .

“Many evictions can only be avoided if we actually make sure that we catch people before they are evicted,” said Witter.

The main reason tenants were unable to pay rent was job loss followed by a medical emergency.

“If we really want to make a concerted effort to prevent people from entering the homeless system, this could be an important step,” said Witter. “It’s one thing to make it a mandate, it’s another thing to fund it.”