Writes Franchese, “Every day, in New Jersey and across the country, countless residential tenants face the prospect of eviction. Last year, our state saw 161,000 evictions. The preponderance of those tenants, many among the ranks of the working poor and the disabled, remain voiceless, without legal counsel or the opportunity to be meaningfully heard. Yet there are catastrophic personal and societal consequences of housing displacement and homelessness.”
The numbers around the lack of free legal help in fighting eviction are startling especially given how significantly such help could prevent homelessness.
“Indeed, only 80 of the 40,000 residential eviction actions brought in Essex County in one year alone had tenants asserting their most basic right to a safe and inhabitable dwelling. That figure is startling, particularly given the far greater statistical likelihood and documented accounts of serious housing code violations in derelict rental units in Newark and its vicinity.”
In his book Eviction, Dr. Matthew Desmond writes of eviction court case in which the landlords almost always have legal representation while the low-income tenants, often single mothers, appear in court without legal representation.
Writes Franchese, “For a tenant to appear in court without legal representation requires that she navigate on her own a procedural labyrinth rife with sand traps for the unwary. To successfully contest an eviction action requires substantive knowledge of the law and the defenses available for nonpayment of rent when the premises are unsafe and betray basic standards of habitability. In other words, it requires the effective assistance of counsel.”
“For a tenant living paycheck to paycheck to even enter a court appearance to defend an eviction action can mean taking a day off from work, losing wages and securing child care.”
Yes, New Jersey does not provide counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. Professor Franchese writes about, as a model, the work being done in New York City to prevent eviction and homelessness caused by eviction.
“New Jersey, perhaps under the aegis of the state’s bar association, could commission its own cost-benefit study, and then decide whether it is well-advised to launch a right-to-counsel program on a pilot basis.”
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Evicted Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond tells the story of eight families on the edge in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee.