Right To Counsel Is The Right Move For Louisville

The federal eviction moratorium was extended for 90 days earlier this week, just days before it was set to expire. While millions of Americans can rest a bit easier — at least until July — the respite could afford the city enough time to take action to help protect its most vulnerable families from losing their homes. 

Good thing Democratic Councilwoman Cassie Chambers Armstrong was already working on a solution. 

Last week, Armstrong announced she was filing a “right to counsel” ordinance, which would provide legal representation to low-income families through eviction hearings. The community has a chance to provide help to those most in need, a level-playing field for low-income tenants and an investment that will ultimately save the city money, plus the personal pain and hardship of so many.  

It’s the kind of program that makes one wonder: How was this not already a thing?

Several major cities across the country have similar programs. In Louisville, Armstrong’s draft ordinance would offer free legal counsel to those with at least one child and a gross income below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines — $33,125 in Kentucky. The city would contract with outside organizations to provide legal services, at no cost to the tenant. The organizations would also have to provide reports documenting their work, including quantifiable outcomes. 

By definition, this program helps parents who struggle every day, week and month to stay in their home, provide food for their child and keep the lights, heat or air on. The last thing they can afford is an attorney.

Without counsel, tenants are unlikely to know their legal rights or that they can even negotiate a settlement to avoid court. But, because many cannot afford an attorney, as a result, many evictions go unchallenged, which can cause even more immediate and long-term problems than just being removed from your home. 

An eviction on someone’s record potentially damages their ability to find housing in the future. It can hurt their credit score. Evictions lead to higher rates of homelessness and job loss. For kids, eviction devastates school performance, leads to more mental and physical health problems, higher rates of juvenile delinquency and other social problems. 

Plus, if a tenant does show up to court to challenge their eviction, and are unsuccessful, they may end up responsible for court fees and the landlord’s attorney’s fees.

They need legal counsel.

“We know from other states and cities that if a person has access to an attorney, 86% of those cases end up in resolution that is not an eviction,” said Ben Carter, an attorney who works with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, in a Facebook Live video. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that people stay in their homes, but it means they don’t have an eviction on their record. That eviction doesn’t haunt their ability to attain housing for their family.”

It’s not just a compassionate program, but a smart investment for the community. 

“It has been cost-effective at saving cities money, by keeping families out of shelters and in a more stable situation,” Armstrong said at a press conference announcing the ordinance.

And she’s right. All of the aforementioned long-term effects — job loss, homelessness and the impact on children — add to the social-cost burden carried by the rest of the community, the taxpayer. 

When Philadelphia adopted a right to counsel program in 2019 — guaranteeing counsel to anyone below 200% of the federal poverty level — an independent economic study by Stout Risius Ross, LLC estimated that budgeting $3.5 million annually for legal representation would save the city over $45 million each year — nearly a 13-to-1 return on investment. In Baltimore, Stout figured that a $5.7 million budget would save the city $35.6 million annually — a more than 6-1 ROI. 

I don’t mean this pejoratively, but this is the absolute bare minimum we should be doing for families facing eviction. And, this is not a temporary solution to a COVID-19-created crisis. This is a critical public service that will pay back our community with compounding interest. 

The Metro Council should work with Armstrong and co-sponsor Jecorey Arthur to pass — or expand — this program.