The economic slowdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a surge of rental evictions, leading to a ballooning of social and legal problems and calls for more access to lawyers to represent renters in eviction cases.
At the American Bar Association Virtual Annual Meeting in August, the House of Delegates adopted policy urging governments to minimize evictions and financially assist both landlords and renters faced with hardship because of the pandemic. The new ABA policy expressed concern that if little is done nationwide there would be a significant destabilization of the rental housing market and a major eviction crisis.
Earlier this year, as the pandemic spread, courts, governors or legislatures in most states had imposed moratoriums on evictions, essentially delaying legal proceedings. Since then, the national landscape for evictions has changed, with 31 states now lacking any eviction moratorium, according to panelists at last week’s 2020 Equal Justice Virtual Conference.
The conference, which ran Aug. 11-13, was co-sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. In a panel, “Right to Counsel in a World Gone Mad: Evictions During and After COVID-19,” panelist Emily Benfer, a health and housing expert and visiting law professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, warned that 30 million to 40 million Americans are at “risk of eviction right now” if no additional governmental assistance is provided.
Aside from financial assistance to renters and landlords, another effort to combat the rise of evictions, which is already law in a handful of U.S. local jurisdictions, is to expand a guaranteed right to counsel for low-income renters. In eviction proceedings, most landlords have lawyers, and research shows that unrepresented tenants usually lose their cases.
“Providing a lawyer makes a tremendous difference in keeping people in their homes,” said John Pollock, a housing advocate who moderated the conference program. Evictions, he noted, lead to homelessness with a resulting host of social problems related to the health and welfare of individuals and families.
“This is a right that can really make a difference,” Pollock added.