Series Illustrates Need for Legal Aid Reforms to Prevent Homelessness

Legal Aid reform

A new series of policy briefs from the Legal Services Corporation, a public interest law firm, outlines several reforms for legal aid programs that can prevent low-income Americans from becoming homeless.

The briefs were published at a time when more than 580,000 people are homeless in America on a given night, according to the latest Point in Time snapshot count. Meanwhile, households continue to face an increased risk of becoming homeless as eviction rates rise in cities across the country. Many live in areas that do not have legal aid for renters to fight eviction cases.

“Though this is the culmination of the work of LSC’s Housing Task Force, it is also the beginning of a larger conversation,” LSC President Ron Flagg said in a press release. “These briefs demonstrate different ways that low-income Americans are propelled into housing insecurity by predatory practices that exploit gaps in policy and the lack of adequate resources for civil legal services.”

Each policy brief details legal challenges low-income earners face in mobile and manufactured housing arrangements, contract for deed home purchases, illegal evictions, and extended-stay motels. The briefs also offer several legal solutions for each issue, but the motif each brief shares is that policymakers must invest more resources in legal aid programs.

Illegal Evictions

The brief about illegal evictions calls for cities to provide tenants with a right to counsel in eviction proceedings and provide rental assistance payments to needy households. Oftentimes, tenants are unrepresented in eviction cases because they are considered civil proceedings, and the constitutional right to counsel only applies in criminal cases.

Cities like Denver and Chicago have worked to establish a right to counsel and provide legal aid for renters facing eviction.

For example, Denver voters approved a ballot initiative in November 2022. to establish a citywide right to counsel. The Denver City Council voted in November 2023 to add $13.5 million to the city’s rental assistance program, bringing the total funding up to $30 million. The move came after Mayor Mike Johnston introduced a budget that included just $12.6 million of rental assistance.

Chicago’s city council also seeks to enshrine a tenant’s right to counsel during eviction proceedings. Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson has called for the city’s rental assistance program to be made permanent.

Both Denver and Chicago have worked to establish these programs at a time when eviction rates are rising sharply.

In Denver, landlords have filed more than 10,000 eviction cases in 2023, which is more than the city collected in a single year since the 2008 housing crisis, CBS News reported. Cook County, which is home to Chicago, surpassed its pre-pandemic eviction rate over the summer, WBEX Chicago reported.

Contract for Deed

The briefs also call for lawmakers to address holes in the contract for deed process, which can often lead low-income households into homelessness.

Contract for deed agreements work like this. A homebuyer agrees to make regular payments on a home to which the seller still holds the title. There is often no mortgage or bank involved in the process.

While this arrangement can be attractive for low-income households with bad credit scores, it also puts them in increased jeopardy of losing their home for reasons they can’t control, the brief argues.

The brief adds that policymakers should add legal coaching programs to help tenants and homebuyers understand the contract for deed process. It also calls for policymakers to help prevent home foreclosures and evictions, which the brief identified as two of the main reasons why people enter into contract for deed agreements in the first place.

“The prevalence of these contracts is a housing problem,” Iowa Legal Aid Executive Director Nick Smithberg said in the report. “It’s a symptom of the bigger issues we are working on as people struggle to find stable, affordable housing.”

Mobile and Manufactured Homes

People living in mobile or manufactured homes often face the highest levels of housing instability. The problem has gotten worse as corporate investors continue to buy home parks, LCS’ brief suggests.

LCS noted that Some issues that cause housing instability for mobile and manufactured home residents include not having the right of first refusal to buy their park when it goes up for sale. People who rent mobile and manufactured homes also suffer from not having legal representation during eviction cases, the brief continues.

“These manufactured housing communities have been hit hard by the job losses due to the pandemic, and that creates a lot of instability and a higher risk of eviction,” Smithberg said.

To solve these issues, the brief suggests that policymakers adopt laws that extend notice periods for lot and rent increases, strengthen “just cause” eviction protections, and require right-of-first-refusal provisions in sales contracts.

How You Can Help

Now is not the time to be silent about homelessness in the U.S. or anywhere else. Unhoused people deserve safe and sanitary housing just as much as those who can afford rent or mortgage.

Poverty and homelessness are both policy choices, not personal failures. That’s why we need you to contact your officials and tell them you support legislation that:

  • Streamlines the development of affordable housing
  • Reduces barriers for people experiencing homelessness to enter permanent housing
  • Bolsters government response to homelessness

Together, we can solve homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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