The Potluck

Minneapolis aims to provide lawyers to all low-income renters in eviction cases

By: - October 8, 2021 3:21 pm

Photo courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a so-called “right to counsel” ordinance on Friday that aims to provide all low-income renters with free legal services in eviction cases.

While the U.S. Constitution grants everyone the right to an attorney in criminal cases, evictions and other housing disputes are civil matters and the vast majority of renters who end up in housing court do not have legal representation.

“Having access to a lawyer can make the difference between keeping or losing your home,” said City Council President Lisa Bender, who co-authored the ordinance with Council Members Cam Gordon and Jeremiah Ellison.

The cost for the city to provide counsel to low-income renters — those making less than 200% of the federal poverty line, or $53,000 for a family of four — is estimated to be $1.5 million annually, a significant increase in what the city has invested in such services in recent years.

The program is not yet fully funded and not included in Mayor Jacob Frey’s 2022 budget proposal, but city staff hope to use one-time federal American Rescue Plan dollars to ramp up services.

But preventing evictions can save local governments money, advocates argue. For example, preventing just one family from entering a shelter saves about $5,000.

“We already have too many people living on the streets. To prevent homelessness, we need to prevent people from being wrongfully evicted,” Ellison said.

The right to counsel ordinance follows a series of renter protections passed by the City Council in recent years, including capping security deposits at one month’s rent and limiting landlords from considering old evictions or criminal records in screening tenants.

Renters who have attorneys win or settle their cases 96% of the time, while those without legal help win or settle just 62% of the time, according to a 2018 study of Hennepin County conducted by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which provides legal services to low-income people.

Not surprisingly, people with lawyers also end up with more favorable settlement agreements. Tenants get more time to move, for example, and are also much less likely to have an eviction on their record, a scarlet letter that makes finding another apartment more difficult.

Evictions disproportionately affect Black, Native and Latino people who are more likely to be renters and have much lower incomes on average than white and Asian American people.

The vast majority — 93% — of eviction filings in Minneapolis are for non-payment of rent, with people owing $2,000 on average. The right to counsel ordinance could lead landlords to file fewer evictions in the first place, like in New York City, which saw eviction filings drop nearly 40% in some areas after it adopted a similar ordinance.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.