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The Push To Provide Free Attorneys For People Facing Eviction

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Federal relief money and a moratorium on evictions due to the pandemic has so far prevented a massive surge in people losing their housing, but plenty of renters are still ending up in eviction court. A growing trend is to offer them free legal help. Matt Bloom of member station KUNC reports from Boulder, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS SHUFFLING)

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: On the coffee table inside her living room, Christie DeFurio is sifting through a thick stack of paperwork. It's from earlier this year, when her landlord tried to evict her from her one-bedroom apartment for falling behind on rent.

CHRISTIE DEFURIO: So that's the demand for rent or possession, and I owed over $10,000.

BLOOM: At first, she got protection from the federal pandemic eviction moratorium. But when she got into a conflict with neighbors, her case landed in court. There, DeFurio, like most renters, didn't have a lawyer. She felt lost.

DEFURIO: 'Cause it's set up to be confusing, I think, on purpose, so that people - like, the normal person, is confused and overwhelmed and intimidated.

BLOOM: To her surprise, though, the judge told her the city already had a lawyer to represent her for free. Last November, Boulder voters passed an initiative that provides a lawyer for every renter going through eviction. The so-called Right to Counsel program has already prevented dozens of evictions since launching earlier this year.

THOM WARD: It's most common for individuals to come in, to be scared, to feel overwhelmed, to have no idea what to do.

BLOOM: Thom Ward, an attorney with the program, advises tenants of their rights and helps them better negotiate deals with landlords.

WARD: So it's my goal to keep this from being - an eviction from being on a tenant's record.

BLOOM: An important step because prior eviction can make it harder to rent in the future. Boulder has joined at least six other cities in giving all renters facing eviction the right to free legal help. San Francisco and New York City have done so for over two years. Emily Benfer is a law professor at Wake Forest University who specializes in housing issues.

EMILY BENFER: Right to Counsel is one of the most important and successful interventions that has an incredibly strong evidence base.

BLOOM: A study found that 84% of tenants in New York who got a lawyer were able to avoid eviction. Women in low-income communities of color benefited most. Benfer says the pandemic has only increased interest in this type of resource for renters.

BENFER: I think the heightened risk of eviction right now has certainly drawn attention to this crisis, and policymakers across the country are asking the question, how can we intervene?

BLOOM: Just this month, Maryland state legislature approved Right to Counsel statewide. Bills are now pending in at least six other states, including Nebraska, Washington state and Indiana. But Boulder landlord Tim Bentz says somebody has to pay for the free attorneys. He owns more than 300 rental properties.

TIM BENTZ: In my case, it's I think 35, $36,000 a year, which is a lot of money.

BLOOM: Boulder's lawyers are paid via an annual $75 per unit tax on landlords. He says many property owners pass along that cost to renters.

BENTZ: It makes it that much more difficult for tenants to afford to live here when they have to pay fees.

BLOOM: Other cities use general tax revenue instead of fees on landlords. Proposed legislation in other states would do that, too, or tap COVID-19 stimulus dollars. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates more than 8 million households are behind on rent. The federal moratorium on evictions due to the pandemic is set to expire June 30.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom in Boulder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.