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Letter to the Times: Douglas County should adopt a tenants’ right to counsel

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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If you’re charged with a felony, you have the right to an attorney. If you’re about to be kicked out of your home here in Douglas County, you’re on your own. 

According to a national advocacy group, only 3% of tenants are represented by lawyers in eviction proceedings. Landlords? Eighty-one percent. 

Most tenants are unprepared to navigate a complex legal process on their own. Even if a tenant isn’t too overwhelmed or scared to battle a trained attorney in court, deciphering the law can be an insurmountable challenge. 

Just how difficult is it for many tenants to understand and assert their rights in eviction cases? A study in Baltimore found that 80% of unrepresented tenants had a potential legal defense to eviction, but only 8% asserted that defense. 

Unsurprisingly, research confirms that represented tenants are much more likely to remain housed. In California, a study found that represented tenants were nearly four times more likely to remain in their homes. A study in Denver found that more than 80% of represented tenants stayed in their homes, compared to just 32% of unrepresented tenants in private (nonpublic) housing and 57% in public housing. A Minnesota study determined that represented tenants were twice as likely to remain housed. Additional studies show similar striking results. 

Ninety-seven percent of tenants, of course, aren’t represented by counsel. But over the last few years, several states and localities have leveled the playing field by providing tenants with a right to counsel in eviction proceedings. 

Kansas City, Missouri, is one of the most recent jurisdictions to adopt a tenants’ right to counsel, passing such an ordinance in December 2021. Kansas City joins at least a dozen other American cities that have adopted a tenants’ right to counsel since 2017, including diverse jurisdictions such a New York, Boulder, New Orleans, Louisville, Denver and Toledo. Three states — Washington, Connecticut, and Maryland — have also adopted a tenants’ right to counsel.

Establishing a tenants’ right to counsel sounds like an expensive endeavor, but it ultimately saves money. A national financial services firm has analyzed the “return on investment” of establishing a tenants’ right to counsel and concluded that it will save $3 to $6 for each dollar invested. Keeping more tenants housed, the firm says, results in “significant cost savings … related to emergency shelter costs, transitional housing and re-housing costs, emergency healthcare and other costs associated with homelessness, foster care costs, and impacts to the education system.”

We can sharply reduce homelessness by telling Douglas County tenants, “You have the right to an attorney.” It’s time for Douglas County to join Kansas City and other jurisdictions around the country by adopting a tenants’ right to counsel. 

— Steven Koprince (he/him), Lawrence

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