In the throes of the Great Recession a decade ago, I stood in a cramped courtroom at Boston Housing Court next to my client, a single mom of two from Dorchester, Massachusetts. For the second time in a year, she was being kicked out of her home because the homeowner she was renting from fell behind on the mortgage payments.
She couldn’t bear the thought of uprooting her kids again in the middle of the school year. So she stayed, despite the eviction notice. Then the loan servicer illegally changed the locks while she was at the grocery store. The fire department had to come break down the door. One of her sons had a nervous breakdown at school the next day.
Now, she was in court. Though she had done nothing wrong. Though she worked hard and paid her rent. Here she was, about to lose the roof over her head.
Homeless for lack of a lawyer
My client’s story was not unique during the Great Recession. Over five years, roughly 10 million people were displaced from 4 million homes across the country. But she had something that the majority of those displaced homeowners did not: a volunteer lawyer who helped her face the bank in court and keep her home.
Nationwide, tenants who are represented by a lawyer are twice as likely to keep their home than if they are forced to represent themselves. In a study in Quincy, Massachusetts, two-thirds of tenants who had full legal representation were able to fend off eviction and did nearly five times better financially than those without a lawyer.
Despite these statistics, only 1 in 10 tenants battling eviction arrive at court with a lawyer by their side. And it’s about to get much, much worse. Some 55 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, leading experts to warn of an impending “tsunami” of evictions if the Senate doesn’t agree to an eviction moratorium extension passed by the House.
In Massachusetts alone, well over 100,000 households are at risk of being evicted when our state’s eviction moratorium ends, more than twice the number of local households evicted in the years following the Great Recession. And the map of those evictions will look troublingly familiar, disproportionately hitting the Black and brown communities COVID-19 has already devastated.
We absolutely must extend the nationwide moratorium on evictions. But an emergency stopgap won’t be enough. We must fortify the legal rights and protections for all low-income Americans who encounter our civil justice system. And we must make sure those in need have access to those protections through legal representation.
In 1963, Gideon vs. Wainwright created the guaranteed right to counsel in criminal cases, mandating that every indigent defendant be provided a public defender. It is past time this nation created a Civil Gideon — the guaranteed right to counsel in civil cases involving food, shelter, employment, health care and physical safety.
Because the horrifying reality is that we are not just facing an eviction crisis: We are confronting multiple system failures regarding housing, food, health, safety and the legal rights that protect those most basic human needs. Three-quarters of low-income households had already experienced a civil legal problem, from evictions to medical debt, domestic violence, veteran’s benefits and disability access.
Then COVID-19 made every single one of those problems worse.
Cascading injustices follow evictions
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is actively putting justice further out of reach for low-income Americans. From his earliest days in office, he made it his mission to eliminate our greatest national legal aid provider, the Legal Services Corporation. The Access to Legal Aid Caucus that I chair has undertaken a bipartisan effort to increase LSC funding by over $100 million in the past six years, including $50 million in the CARES Act passed in March.
Still, it is not nearly enough. Advocates estimate households with incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty level — more than 90 million people — can’t afford basic legal assistance.The consequences are reflected in homes lost, wages denied, restraining orders escaped, and employer abuse unchecked across the country. Not surprisingly, decades of racism and white supremacy put Black and brown Americans most at risk. With Black and Latinx people twice as likely to rent than their white neighbors, the minute eviction moratoriums are lifted they will be the ones hardest hit. In Virginia, even after controlling for poverty and income rates, roughly 60% of Black neighborhoods have an annual eviction rate higher than 10%.
We can avoid an avalanche of evictions and the cascading injustices that follow the loss of a home. We can avoid the generational trauma of families that are denied a place to call their own. We can avoid the mistakes we made the last time our economy shattered — when we bailed out banks and industry but left workers and their families to stand alone.
And we can make good on the words etched above the entrance to the highest court in the land: Equal Justice Under Law.
Rep. Joe Kennedy III is a Democrat from Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District. Follow him on Twitter: @RepJoeKennedy