CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The extended eviction ban continues to delay a flood of evictions, but the federal moratorium will end at some point and when it does, many renters will have no choice but to represent themselves in court. That is often a losing battle.
Other cities, most recently Seattle, have passed laws guaranteeing free legal representation to people facing evictions. Early evidence shows right to counsel programs in Cleveland, New York and San Francisco work to keep people in their homes.
Great Neighborhoods Committee Chairman Malcom Graham said he's willing to look into the idea in Charlotte.
"I'm willing to look into it," Graham said when the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative shared what's working in other cities. "Obviously, we're expecting to get a spike in court cases based on the moratorium being alleviated and so, we want to make sure that we give citizens all the help that they can, so if there's any additional tools that we need in our tool chest to ensure that families are being properly represented and getting the legal advice that they need, I'm all for that."
While the City of Charlotte is using federal dollars to provide pandemic relief for rent, mortgages and utilities, that help is only temporary.
"That might be a way for us to use some of our dollars if they fit within our guidelines to seek additional support," Councilmember Graham said. "I am open to looking at all of those type of avenues to ensure that when the courts reopen and the eviction moratoriums are lifted that families get the type of support from a legal perspective that they need, so that their rights can be protected."
Isaac Sturgill with Legal Aid of North Carolina wants to see right to counsel laws enacted locally and statewide.
"We have something like an 85% success rate with the tenants that we represent," Sturgill said. "Your probability of protecting yourself from eviction just skyrockets the moment you have an attorney by your side."
The non-profit law firm offers free representation to those with low incomes, but Sturgill said Legal Aid can't help everyone. In fact, even after quadrupling the organization's staff in Mecklenburg County, Legal Aid is still only able to help in fewer than 10% of all cases during a normal year.
"There's also a huge imbalance between the number of landlords that are represented by attorneys and the number of tenants that have access to legal counsel," Sturgill said. "Having an eviction on your record if you're not successful in court can have really long-lasting consequences that can affect families for years."
Sturgill said, at the least, free representation would allow attorneys to appear in court on behalf of renters who often can't make their initial court dates.
Fellow Great Neighborhoods Committee Member Braxton Winston said he is "in favor" of the idea.
"I am certainly in favor of this," Winston said on Twitter. "We tried to achieve some of those ends with our eviction remediation during our COVID housing task force. Legal representation is essential to be able to participate in the democratic processes of our legal systems."
Locally, the Tenant Organizing Resource Center has also advocated for right to counsel laws.
In addition to funding, right to counsel programs also need participation from enough attorneys. San Francisco Public Press documented that challenge in early 2020. Despite an attorney shortage, a city annual report showed the program worked in most cases where people received full-scope representation.
Washington is expected to follow Seattle's lead and pass a statewide right to counsel law in the coming days.
The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel tells WCNC Charlotte eight cities in all have passed similar laws and six states have bills pending, including South Carolina. The organization also said governments can use federal dollars to offer free legal representation.
WCNC-TV is part of six major media companies and other local institutions producing I Can't Afford to Live Here, a collaborative reporting project focused on solutions to the affordable housing crisis in Charlotte. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.