The Seattle City Council on Monday voted to give free legal representation to tenants in the city facing eviction.
The legislation, advocates say, is a small investment that will help people stay in their homes and forestall the ruinous, and more expensive, consequences of homelessness.
It passed unanimously Monday with one notable change — an amendment from Council President M. Lorena González makes the offer available to tenants who are “indigent.”
Indigent is very broadly defined as someone unable to afford a lawyer for the eviction proceeding and no documentation would be necessary, beyond the person signing a form saying they couldn’t afford a lawyer.
González said the change was necessary to ensure the law survives legal challenges and is in line with similar city policies, like the city’s legal defense fund for local immigrants facing deportation.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the measure’s lead sponsor, opposed the change, arguing any sort of income eligibility requirement was both demeaning to those facing eviction and would ultimately mean fewer people access the service.
“Even the least invasive, most benign seeming means-testing are deterrents for people,” Sawant said. “It’s a way of making poor people dance for a service that they need, and it is profoundly humiliating.”
“Everything Councilmember Sawant said about means-testing is true, that’s not what we have in front of us,” Councilmember Debora Juarez said, stressing that no proof or test would be required for tenants to qualify for an attorney.
“You can call it happy-joy testing if you want, but it is still means-testing,” Sawant said.
González’s amendment passed 8-1.
Local studies have shown that by far the most common reason for eviction is lack of payment of rent, and that it’s often just a small debt. Having a lawyer, advocates say, can slow the process down and help tenants access services like rental assistance.
A 2018 report by the city and the Housing Justice Project, the organization which provides legal services for most local tenants facing eviction, looked at more than 1,200 Seattle evictions in 2017. It found that 86% were for nonpayment of rent, and 52% of all evictions were for one month’s rent or less.
And a not-yet published study from the Housing Justice Project on Seattle evictions in 2019 found that 52% of tenants with lawyers during their evictions were able to stay in their homes, while only 8% of those with no representation stayed in their homes.
“Providing attorneys for tenants who are facing eviction, I think, is a critical need, a long overdue need,” said Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “When we are able to work with a tenant, by the mere fact that we are able to make contact with them, more times than not, we can keep them housed.”
Their services generally cost about $300 to $500 per household, Witter said. They often connect clients to rental-assistance programs, where the average assistance payment is $1,500 to $2,000.
Compare that, Witter said, to the cost to shelter an individual or family that loses housing and enters the homelessness system — usually at least $10,000 and much more to keep them housed.
“It is orders of magnitude more expensive not to pass universal right to counsel,” Sawant said.
The legislation specifies no funding source. A rough estimate puts costs about $750,000 annually, but the city already provides more than $300,000 a year for legal services for those facing eviction. So, per the estimate, the legislation would cost about $400,000 a year.
At least seven other cities across the country already have “right-to-counsel” laws, providing lawyers for those facing eviction.
Those cities’ experience, while not a direct match, indicate that Seattle’s estimates on the cost of providing counsel could be low.
San Francisco, for instance, which is slightly larger than Seattle, has budgeted more than $10 million for its right-to-counsel law.
But, Witter said, Washington’s laws, which allow evictions much quicker than some other states, mean there’s less legal process. That means both that it can be harder for tenants to stay in their homes, but also fewer opportunities for legal bills to add up.
“Most tenants only have one hearing,” Witter said.
A bill currently working its way through the Legislature in Olympia (SB 5160) would provide a right to counsel statewide for those facing eviction, as well as require landlords to offer repayment plans for people who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic.
The bill passed the state Senate three weeks ago, largely along party lines, with Democrats supportive and Republicans opposed. It is in committee in the House. Under the state bill, the right to free counsel would only apply to those making less than 200% of the federal poverty level, or about $53,000 for a family of four, and it wouldn’t go into effect for a year.
The state estimated that providing lawyers for all those facing eviction statewide, who met the eligibility requirements, would cost about $11 million a year.
If it passes, Washington would become the first state to guarantee a lawyer to those facing eviction.