Amanda Scott is a 2018 Harry S. Truman Scholar and a senior at Georgetown University.
Our Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney to those accused of a crime, as upheld in the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright. But for those at risk of losing their homes, there’s no such guarantee. That’s because Gideon covers only criminal cases, and eviction proceedings are a civil matter.
This needs to change. Congress and state lawmakers should act to pass legislation to ensure all families have their day in court.
Eviction has devastating and long-lasting consequences for low-income families. Having just one eviction on your record can make it nearly impossible to find stable and safe housing again. Being evicted also leads to depression, poorer health and higher levels of stress, and the side effects can persist for years, according to research from Rice University and Harvard University.
I should know. I was traumatized the first time my family was evicted when I was a child in Alabama. The second time was no less harrowing.
Imagine yourself as a child hearing from your mom that you must leave your house before the landlord comes and throws your belongings on the front lawn. You’re told that you must pack only the things you need and the rest will have to go to a storage unit. You watch as your bed is taken apart and your toys are boxed up and locked away — not knowing when you’ll see them again. Now imagine you lose that storage unit and everything in it because you’re unable to pay the monthly storage fees.
It wasn’t until 10 years later, when I was interning at Legal Services Alabama, that I learned it was illegal for our landlord to throw our belongings on the front lawn. I think back to that time and I wonder: Could we have kept our home if we’d had a lawyer?
Low-income tenants represented by legal aid attorneys are significantly more likely to prevail in housing court and secure settlements than those who appear in court with no representation. Yet, in many housing courts across the country, only 10 percent of tenants are represented by legal counsel, compared with 90 percent of landlords.
Every year, millions of low-income Americans are evicted because they can’t afford to pay rent. Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in the United States in 2016 — more than four every minute. With a lack of affordable housing, skyrocketing rent prices and Americans spending more of their income on housing, it’s no surprise that there’s an eviction crisis.
Fortunately, there’s a growing movement to change this reality and establish a civil right to counsel — what advocates have called Civil Gideon. These efforts are being led by organizations such as the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
In 2006, the American Bar Association unanimously approved a resolution urging federal, state and local governments to guarantee a right to counsel for low-income Americans in civil cases involving “basic human needs,” including housing. Today, that resolution is turning into concrete policy.
New York was the first city to heed the call to close the justice gap. There, if you fall below the federal poverty line and are at risk of being evicted, you have the right to an attorney. A 2016 report from the mayor’s office showed the dramatic impact that access to legal counsel has had for low-income tenants facing eviction over just two years. In 2013, only 1 percent of tenants facing eviction in New York had legal representation, compared with 99 percent of landlords.
In 2016, more than 1 in 4 tenants had legal representation , and evictions had fallen by 24 percent.
In June, voters in San Francisco approved Proposition F to provide legal representation to all tenants facing eviction regardless of income. The ballot measure passed with almost 56 percent voting in favor of it. And in May, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced the city’s plan to guarantee a right to counsel for low-income tenants in housing court.
In 1976, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell remarked: “ ‘Equal justice under law’ is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building.” He continued, “It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. . . . It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”
It’s too late to change what happened to my family and me — but it’s not too late for us to help those facing similar situations now. Lawmakers should take up the cause to fulfill our country’s promise of equal justice under law.