More States and Localities Pass Right-to-Counsel Legislation

Since 2017, three states and 15 cities have passed right-to-counsel protections for tenants – an impressive achievement given that no jurisdiction had enacted such a right prior to 2017. Since the beginning of the pandemic, right-to-counsel (RTC) policies have gained popularity, and 11 states and dozens of localities have passed or are working to pass right-to-counsel policies this legislative season.

Several states have introduced legislation in recent months that would create RTC programs. Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and South Carolina have introduced bills that would enable full legal representation for tenants whose household income is below a certain threshold. Massachusetts’s legislation – “HB 1731 / “SB 864 – would also apply to owner-occupants of one-to-three unit buildings, while its bill “HB 2748 would create a “Housing First and Housing for All Fund” to be used to support RTC or other legal representation in eviction cases. Illinois’s “HB 3709 would phase in an RTC program as well as create a landlord registry, tenant’s bill of rights, and other measures aimed at addressing the shortage of safe and affordable housing.

Officials in Jersey City, New Jersey, introduced a right-to-counsel ordinance (“Ord. 23-030) on April 12 that would pay for legal representation for tenants who earn up to 80% of area median income (AMI) and be funded by a fee on market-rate residential development (1.5% of a project’s assessed value). A portion of the fee would go to the city’s affordable housing trust fund and 20% would be used to fund the RTC program, generating $4 million annually and providing representation for 1,500 residents.

Some states and localities that have existing tenant RTC programs are seeking to increase revenue for the programs so they can provide services to more qualified tenants. Maryland Governor Wes Moore signed “HB 200 into law on April 24, for example. The bill appropriates $3.5 million in general funds for the Maryland Legal Services Corporation to provide increased tenant RTC services. Likewise, Connecticut’s lawmakers introduced “SB. 81,” which would continue funding for the current program, and “HB 6108 / “SB 941,” which would expand the program to distressed municipalities as identified by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.

Cities have also made progress passing RTC legislation. In a special session, the Detroit City Council voted to approve $12 million for the City’s program, bringing the total budget to $18 million over three years. The City of Long Beach extended its contract with Los Angeles County and Stay Housed LA, providing $200,000 to support increased legal services for eligible tenants through June or until funds run out. Legal services providers in New York City are asking for an additional $351 million above what is currently budgeted to ensure that providers can recruit, train, and pay attorneys fairly, caseloads are manageable and allow for effective full representation, and every eligible tenant in the city knows about the right. The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition is also pushing for the enactment of “A.4993 / “S.3254,” which would require courts to adjourn cases where eligible tenants have not yet been provided counsel.

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