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Eviction Likely When Tenants Lack Legal Representation

More than 130,000 adults in Washington state were evicted from rental properties between 2013 and 2017. (designer491/Adobe Stock)
More than 130,000 adults in Washington state were evicted from rental properties between 2013 and 2017. (designer491/Adobe Stock)
October 7, 2019

SEATTLE — Most renters facing eviction lack access to legal counsel, and because of that, are set up to fail, says a new analysis.

The Center for American Progress brief found nationwide, about 90% of landlords have legal representation in eviction cases, while only 10% of tenants do.

According to University of Washington research, more than 130,000 adults in the state were evicted between 2013 and 2017.

Seattle attorney Andrew Ackley said even with favorable state laws on their side, renters still struggle to afford representation in Washington.

"Facing the prospect of not just having to get caught up on rent, but also legal fees, people are pinched almost from the start, to the point that some of them don't even bother,” Ackley said. “And they take a weaker position, settle for really less than they're entitled to - and essentially, are at the whim of landlords."

The University of Washington research noted evictions, along with the housing affordability crisis, are contributing to the state's rising homelessness rate, now at its highest level since the Great Recession. Evictions also disproportionately affect people of color.

Heidi Schultheis, senior policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the brief, said an attorney can help a renter in a number of ways, such as negotiating additional time for them to move.

Critically, she noted, evictions stay on a person's credit report for seven years, and legal counsel can ensure a filing doesn't go onto their records.

"Landlords can and do discriminate against tenants with eviction filings on their records, even when the filing didn't actually result in an eviction,” Schultheis said. “Even if the tenant goes on to win their case, that filing will go on your credit report."

Unlike criminal matters, defendants in civil cases aren't constitutionally guaranteed legal representation. But some cities have passed rights to counsel for evictions, and Schultheis said these cities are saving money.

In New York City, renters with incomes at or below 200% of the poverty line are ensured legal representation. She said the city did a cost-benefit analysis of this policy.

"Based almost entirely on the savings that would accrue to the homeless services system, after the cost of providing legal counsel for tenants in eviction cases, the city would save $320 million every year,” she said.

The CAP report is online at AmericanProgress.org.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA