In recent years, advocates for tenant legal rights have pushed for laws granting them the right to appointed counsel in eviction cases. In Chicago such laws have already been passed, and many more are on the way. Here, advocates share their insights on the benefits of these laws and what they’re doing to make them more widely available. Hopefully, these laws will soon be adopted nationwide. In the meantime, tenants should be aware of their rights and the benefits of legal representation.
While it is important to remember that most tenants are unable to afford an attorney, there are programs that offer them full representation for free. Legal Aid for Tenants with Children (LATC) is one such program. This program guarantees free legal counsel for tenants whose annual gross income is at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The application process is straightforward. Simply fill out the appropriate form and a legal aid professional will be in touch with you.
Helen Gym, a Chicago Councilmember, has been working to remedy this imbalance for years. Her bill would provide tenants with a free attorney if they are being threatened with eviction. The bill would also apply to tenants earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This law would give Philadelphia the opportunity to benefit from the Right to Counsel law, which has already passed in New York, Newark, San Francisco, and Cleveland.
As a result of the JDC’s study, the city government has continued to fund nonprofit organizations that connect low-income tenants with attorneys for free. The benefits of pro bono representation are likely to be evident after a trial. The benefits of such representation may even justify the expense. Moreover, it is often beneficial to be represented by a reliable landlord and tenant attorney, and not just by a lawyer. If you are a tenant in Newark, it’s worth seeking pro bono counsel for your case.
In Chicago, RTC legislation has begun to take shape. While not yet signed into law, this initiative may become a reality in the near future. Earlier this year, the city council introduced a bill to set up a low-income tenant legal defense fund. If this becomes law, the center will have the capacity to represent more than 350 tenants each year. This is a big step forward for tenant-rights and justice in Philadelphia.
The city also estimates that the need for tenant legal defense services in San Francisco is nearly $5 million. Breed has committed to funding the program for two years. The funds will be distributed to nonprofit legal service organizations that represent tenants. Partner organizations include the Eviction Defense Collaborative, Chicago Legal Aid, and the Bar Association of Illinois. The funds will help local tenants avoid being evicted and move toward recovery.
Chicago organizers have long recognized the need to expand tenants’ rights. In late 2016, the city’s Tenant Legal Defense Task Force met with tenant groups, legal services providers, and city council members. It made tenants aware of their role in selecting their legal counsel and vetting the firm. It’s up to tenants to be proactive in the selection process, so that they’re assured of excellent representation and avoid being represented by overly aggressive court appointed