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As eviction deadline looms, some cities provide free attorneys to renters

Advocates say tenants are more likely to lose an eviction case if they can't afford a lawyer. Major cities have passed laws guaranteeing legal representation.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With a flood of evictions expected in the coming weeks, renters who can't afford their own attorneys will represent themselves in court and the odds won't be in their favor.

"Management companies and landlords are waiting to file evictions on people. We are talking thousands of people," Action NC Housing Justice Organizer Jessica Moreno said. "When they want to get you out, they'll get you out. We already know that people that don't have representation are more likely to lose their case than people that do have representation." 

While that's often the reality, other cities have found a solution to give renters a fighting chance. They've created new laws that guarantee representation to tenants.

Cleveland, Ohio, became one of the latest cities to pass a law solidifying free legal help. A recent report found the city's Right to Counsel program helped renters avoid eviction in 93% of cases during its first six months of existence. 

New York City became the first to pass such a law in 2017. In an interview with Sophie House of New York University's Furman Center, Housing Matters reported legal representation skyrocketed in zip codes covered by the law, with more than 50% of tenants represented. 

Early research suggests evictions greatly declined as a result. Community Service Society reported "evictions declined more than five times faster" in Right to Counsel zip codes.

Tammy Brathwaite is originally from New York City. The 37-year-old woman now lives in a Charlotte apartment, but likely not for much longer. She's unemployed, behind several months on rent and facing eviction without an attorney. 

In her native Brooklyn, New York City's Right to Counsel law would provide a lawyer.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Brathwaite said. "It's hard because you really don't know what's your next move because it's not in your hands. It's pretty much determined by people who don't seem to be 100% sensitive to what's going on in your life. I'm terrified, to be honest."

The federal eviction moratorium is her last level of security and it expires March 31.

"No job, no income, no way to pay rent, and no protection from you getting thrown out on the street with a 3-year-old daughter," she said.

The soon-to-expire moratorium prevents landlords from evicting tenants who can’t pay due to COVID-19, but not for other lease violations.

North Carolina court data don't identify the reason for attempted evictions, but show eviction filings drastically dropped statewide in April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, but then increased through September before declining again. 

Even with the moratorium in place, the data reveal landlords across North Carolina filed nearly 34,000 summary ejectments during the first five months of the eviction ban.

Court records show while Mecklenburg County accounted for roughly 20% of all eviction filings statewide during the first five months of the moratorium, Mecklenburg County was also home to the lowest percentage of evictions actually granted from July to January. Records show judges granted a higher percentage of summary ejectments in smaller counties like Anson, Watauga and Burke.

"It's not surprising that so many summary ejectments were filed. It tells us that tenants really aren't protected," Moreno said. "I just think of all the people who are going to be homeless and on the street with no options." 

While Right to Counsel laws can provide added protection, there are barriers to those programs. Philadelphia, for example, passed a law last fall, but it's still not funded and could take five years to implement.

Money is not the only potential roadblock. According to NYU's Furman Center, these programs require recruiting lawyers, educating tenants and preparing for the potential of more aggressive litigation from landlords and property managers.

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.