Tomorrow morning the City Council will take up a bill proposed by Councilmembers Lewis and Sawant that would provide free legal representation to all tenants in Seattle facing eviction.
The bill would require the city to provide the right to legal counsel for any residential tenant facing eviction in Seattle, free of charge, regardless of their ability to pay. Currently the city already funds the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project to provide legal defense services.
Philosophically, it’s a bit messy. The model of extending the right to a defense attorney in criminal matters to eviction procedures isn’t necessarily straightforward, as it places the city in the position of picking sides before knowing the facts in a legal dispute between two private parties (unless the city itself is the landlord). However, it was the government’s choice to design eviction proceedings to require litigation in a court of law — one can imagine other arrangements where lawyers aren’t involved for resolving most residential eviction cases — so it’s reasonable to conclude that the government has the responsibility to ensure that tenants can successfully navigate that system.
The biggest issue for Seattle in providing a universal right to counsel for residential tenants is the cost of the program. Last year the city funded the tenant legal services to the tune of $218,000; this year, anticipating rising evictions once the moratorium is lifted, the Council appropriated $605,000 ($218,000 to the Housing Justice Project and $340,000 to the Tenant Law Center), which is expected to pay for five attorneys and a half-time support person. The bill from Sawant and Lewis contains no additional funding; according to a staff memo, it is expected to cost $750,000 to provide legal support to all Seattle tenants who want it (there are approximately 1,200 eviction filings per year in Seattle, according to the Housing Justice Project).
That budget figure might be low — and potentially dramatically so. Newark, a city of approximately 282,000 people, is spending $750,000 to $1 million on its “right to counsel.” San Francisco, slightly larger than Seattle at about 880,000 people, spent $3.9 million in its 2019-2020 fiscal year, and has budgeted $10.5 million this year. Certainly for 2021 the costs are unknown and will depend upon when and how the eviction moratorium is lifted, as well as whether financial assistance for tenants owing back rent is available.
However much it costs, there is clear evidence that providing legal support to tenants makes a tremendous difference. Studies show that tenants with legal representation do much better in eviction proceedings: according to the Housing Justice Project, 56% of the tenants it represented in 2019 stayed in their home. In San Francisco, the success rate is 67%.
For those wondering whether rich tenants will take advantage of this, data from San Francisco suggests otherwise: 85% of the tenants using the city-provided legal support were low-income; only 6% were above “moderate” income.
Council member Sawant has said that she hopes to vote the bill, introduced two days ago, out of her committee tomorrow. That would set it up for final adoption next Monday afternoon.
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