You (Should) Have the Right to (A Housing) Attorney

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that you have a right to an attorney in criminal prosecutions.  The Supreme Court has interpreted that right, most famously in Gideon vs. Wainwright, to include an attorney provided by the government if you cannot afford one.  Hopefully, the reason behind this is obvious: your liberty and the means to protect it are essential to life in a free society. 

Is housing any less essential?  In cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., the answer is increasingly no.  These cities are working to make sure everyone has an attorney for housing issues for people that can’t otherwise afford one. Housing, if we really believe it to be a right, requires that we fund legal representation for all those who need it in housing court.  

Besides being an advocate for affordable housing, I’m an attorney and work with individuals in housing court and on debt collection matters for people who have no defense against eviction or landlord/tenant disputes when they don’t have a lawyer.  I’ve seen firsthand the difference a lawyer can make in helping people keep their home or keep their rental record clean.  It’s time Minneapolis catches up with other cities that are working to protect the right to housing in a direct and material way.

New York became the first city to commit to providing an attorney in housing court in 2017.  Under New York’s program, anyone earning under 200% of the federal poverty guidelines is guaranteed full representation in housing court.  

Without a guaranteed right to an attorney, most tenants face an overwhelming power imbalance.  Tenants who didn’t receive proper notice or who have defenses to eviction available to them often can’t exercise those defenses without attorneys, and the attorneys representing landlords certainly aren’t going to help them. Lawyers make a difference: after increased funding for tenant representation in 2014, total evictions in New York City went down by 24%.  Even better, a study found that in cases where tenants have legal representation evictions are reduced by 77%.  Reducing evictions makes tenants more secure in their housing and provide them more opportunities to take care of their health, invest in themselves or their families, and save money.  

Considering that nearly half of those entering homeless shelters became homeless within five years of being evicted reduced evictions is a huge, measurable improvement in societal welfare.  Even for those who still are evicted, attorneys can help arrange alternative housing or keep the eviction off the client’s record, making it easier to secure other housing down the road.

How much would this cost? Minneapolis has approximately 3,000 eviction cases a year.  If costs are the same as in the existing Community Attorney program in Minneapolis, hiring six attorneys and three paralegals to provide representation in all of these cases would cost just over $1.5 million.  That also matches roughly what the right to counsel program costs New York City on a per capita basis, and doesn’t include any savings from decreased use of homeless shelters or other city services.  (New York’s program is projected to actually produce net savings, though that’s more difficult to project for other cities because the amount saved depends on the mix of local, regional, state, and federal funding for the program and for the services it replaces). 

Spending $1.5 million out of a greater-than-a-billion dollar budget or the equivalent for cities other than MInneapolis likely will strike many of you as worthwhile all on its own, even without savings from other social services.  The real question is how much is ensuring people are secure in their homes worth to us?

New York’s example of the discrepancy between eviction rates with and without an attorney shows what a huge disservice we are doing to renters now.  For many the only difference between a home and homelessness is an attorney standing up for their rights.. Let’s make the choice to fight for everyone’s home by guaranteeing everyone a housing attorney.


Zachary Wefel

About Zachary Wefel

Former candidate for Minneapolis Ward 1 City Council, lawyer at Wefel Law Firm PLLC, and co-founder of the Minnesota Tool Library. Follow me on Twitter @zacharywefel.