Loophole 1: Means Testing
Some Councilmembers at the committee repeatedly argued that perhaps tenants who face evictions should first have to prove their low-income status before they can access the legal aid. This is so-called “means testing.” These politicians want to suggest that means testing will promote accountability in those who get the benefits – in other words, make sure well-off people don’t steal the benefits. But in reality, all that means testing does is become a serious obstacle to people who are eligible from receiving the programs.
Pure and simple: “means-testing” is mean towards the most vulnerable of our community.
Decades of data shows that any time there is means testing, it creates a significant barrier to the eligible people accessing the service. From food stamps to eviction defense, means testing has resulted in a significant chilling effect on people’s ability to use the service and seriously reduced the proportion of vulnerable families that get the help.
In some cities like San Francisco, the right to counsel has been guaranteed without any means testing. The data from there confirms what we already know: that people in eviction court are overwhelmingly (94 percent) low and moderate income – those who could not have afforded a lawyer, and desperately needed the legal aid.
Loophole 2: Tenants of small landlords should not get the legal aid
Some Councilmembers are saying tenants with small landlords should have fewer rights, and be excluded from these legal protections, or that the availability to receive legal aid should depend on the reason the landlord is giving for pursuing eviction.
But regardless of the size of the landlord, a bitter reality is that the eviction system is sexist and racist. Women and people of color are disproportionately targeted for evictions by Seattle landlords. At Thursday’s Renters Rights Committee, staffers from the Housing Justice Project reported that in 2019, while Black people represented only 8.3% of Seattle’s overall population, they accounted for a whopping 28% of all evictions. That’s why, our movement believes that ALL TENANTS should have the right to legal aid, and that we need to build movements to fight to make big banks, big for-profit corporations, and corporate landlords pay for this crisis, not renters, struggling small landlords, or working-class homeowners.
We also know that the biggest evictors in Seattle, by far, are the big corporate landlords, like Goodman Real Estate, an international property management company with $2.5 billion in assets.
Loophole 3: Legal aid for tenants should be limited because it’ll cost the city “too much”
Some Councilmembers say they are worried about the cost of guaranteeing legal aid to all tenants facing eviction.
I personally want to fight for all working people’s right to housing and save families and children the trauma and violence of eviction, no matter what. We know from the American Civil Liberties Union that in eviction court, the deck is stacked against tenants: landlords bring lawyers with them in 90% of eviction cases, while only 10% of tenants can afford to do so. I personally also think it’s shameful for politicians to say they are worried about the small amounts of money needed to prevent evictions when billionaires have become a trillion dollars richer even during this pandemic.
But let’s look at the numbers. Studies in Massachusetts, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and elsewhere have found that the cost of providing legal aid to tenants is tiny compared to the costs associated with not providing that aid – that is, the huge costs of providing emergency shelters, emergency healthcare and mental health services, services for homeless children, to people who have been evicted. And let’s not forget all the taxpayer money that is spent on the King County Sheriff carrying out the evictions, and all the taxpayer money to run the eviction court.
In Baltimore, where the eviction crisis is even worse than here, a 2020 study found that investing $5.7 million in right to counsel legislation would save Baltimore and Maryland $35.6 million in emergency shelter, healthcare, childcare, and other costs.
In cities that have enacted Right to Counsel legislation, such as San Francisco and New York, total evictions have plummeted as tenants get proper legal representation. But here’s another interesting phenomenon about those cities: With Right to Counsel laws in place, landlords have been filing fewer eviction claims.
Why is that? We know that in Seattle and throughout the country, landlords often file eviction papers to harass or bully tenants into leaving. But in cities that have Right to Counsel protections in place, landlords have been deterred from harassing tenants with eviction filings, because they know they will be facing off against a tenant represented by a legal aid attorney.
As a consequence, in Right to Counsel cities courts receive fewer frivolous, harassment eviction claims from landlords and more renters have managed to stay housed in those cities.
In New York City, for instance, since the Right to Counsel law was implemented beginning in 2013, evictions have dropped 41% and eviction filings by landlords have dropped 30%.
Loophole 4: There should be an end date or a sunset clause on legal aid to tenants facing evictions
One argument we’ve even heard from our opponents is that this right to legal aid should only be in effect for a year or two, and then automatically “sunset,” or go away!
We know that every eviction is an act of violence, uprooting individuals and families from their homes and communities, and destroying any stability in their lives. A 2018 study found that 87.5% of Seattle tenants who were evicted became homeless. Many were driven out of Seattle. Some even died.
As long as landlords have the legal right to send eviction notices, tenants should have the right to legal aid to fight evictions and remain housed because the right to Counsel laws protect tenants and save lives.