Ordinance would offer free legal representation to low-income tenants
Today, April 12, 2023, The Jersey City Council will share its first reading on two core ordinances: Right to Counsel (Ord. 23-030) and collecting Developer Fees to Fund Affordable Housing (Ord. 23-029), which will fund a Right to Counsel program in the City.
The Right to Counsel ordinance in Jersey City hopes to provide free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. The proposed ordinance will guarantee tenants the right to an attorney, at no cost to them, if they are facing eviction from their homes. The ordinance is designed to help level the playing field for tenants who may not have the resources to hire their own attorney. It recognizes that eviction proceedings can have serious consequences for tenants, including homelessness, and that access to legal representation is critical in these situations.
The Waterfront Project supports the establishment of a new City office to oversee the programmatic components and functioning of this initiative. We also encourage the City to establish contracts and agreements with local nonprofit legal service agencies already servicing Jersey City in order to make the right counsel a reality. With oversight by Jersey City, such public-private partnership would allow Jersey City to build upon the legal services already provided in the community to more quickly and efficiently meet the communities’ legal needs.
The Waterfront Project applauds the Jersey City Council on this key step to funding and implementing Right to Counsel in Jersey City, however, we cannot wait two years for this to happen.
As per the Eviction Lab, there were an average 40.5 eviction filings per day in Hudson County, NJ in 2018. While we acknowledge that this number has increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that would equal 14,782.5 eviction filings per year. Conservatively, we can say half of those are from Jersey City, resulting in 7,391.25 eviction filings against Jersey City tenants per year. The Eviction Lab’s report also indicates that 11,000 remain at-risk of eviction filings. These numbers are based on estimates, however, we know it’s only going to continue to increase, leaving tens of thousands at risk of eviction. In 2015, Hudson County’s eviction filing rate was higher than the national average (10.7% vs 8.4%).
The Waterfront Project, Northeast New Jersey Legal Services, and Community Health Law Project advise and represent an estimated 1,200 tenants annually, which still leaves 6,191 unrepresented tenants in eviction filings per year in Jersey City.
Successful Right to Counsel Programs in Other Cities
The Right to Counsel ordinance in Jersey City is one of more than a dozen similar laws that have been proposed and enacted in cities across the United States. This uptick in laws reflects a growing recognition of the importance of legal representation in eviction cases and a commitment to ensuring that all residents have access to justice. These programs have been successful in reducing eviction rates and providing much-needed legal support to vulnerable tenants.
- New York City passed a law that guarantees tenants facing eviction in certain situations the right to free legal representation. The law has been credited with reducing eviction rates and helping to stabilize communities. According to a study conducted in 2020, tenants who received legal representation through the program were 86% less likely to be evicted than those who did not.
- San Francisco, CA has implemented a successful Right to Counsel program. In 2018, the city passed a law that provides free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. The program has been credited with helping to prevent evictions and keeping tenants in their homes. According to a study conducted in 2020, tenants who received legal representation through the program were 60% less likely to be evicted than those who did not.
- Newark, NJ is another city that has established a Right to Counsel program. In 2020, the city passed an ordinance that provides free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. In the first six months of the program’s implementation, the city reported that 80% of tenants who received legal representation were able to stay in their homes.
- New Orleans, LA also has a Right to Counsel program that provides free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. Tenants who meet certain income requirements and are facing eviction from their homes are eligible for the program. The program is available to tenants living in rental properties, including public housing, privately owned buildings, and mobile homes.
- Boulder, CO has taken a step towards ensuring that low-income renters facing eviction have access to legal representation through the Right to Counsel Program. This program, launched in September 2021, provides free legal representation to eligible tenants in eviction proceedings in Boulder County. The program was created in response to the increased risk of eviction faced by tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is a collaboration between the City of Boulder, Boulder County, and local legal aid organizations.
- Kansas City, MO enacted their Right to Counsel Program to provide free legal representation to all tenants within the city limits, regardless of income, whose landlord has filed an eviction complaint against them. Prior to the program’s launch in June 2022 approximately 99% of cases filed in Kansas City resulted in evictions. Since the Right to Counsel began, approximately 92% of represented tenants have avoided eviction. Kansas City has contracted with three local legal services organizations, which specialize in landlord-tenant matters, to conduct the program and represent all tenants who have had an eviction filed against them.
Right to Counsel is vital to Jersey City because it will provide much-needed legal support to tenants who may not otherwise have access to it. Tenants facing eviction are often low-income individuals or families who may be at a disadvantage in the legal system. By providing free legal representation, these programs help to level the playing field and ensure that tenants have due process of law.
In addition to helping individual tenants, a Right to Counsel program will positively impact our City. By reducing eviction rates, these programs can help to stabilize neighborhoods and prevent displacement. This is especially important in communities, like Jersey City, that are facing gentrification or other pressures that may lead to rising rents and evictions.
The Waterfront Project believes that by ensuring that everyone has access to legal representation, Right to Counsel in Jersey CIty can help to promote justice and fairness in our legal system. Right to Counsel will result in a reduction in evictions and an increase in housing stability for vulnerable tenants across our great City.