A single mother of three recently laid off from her job arrives home from a career fair to find an eviction notice taped to the front door of her rental home. An elderly man working part-time to supplement his Social Security income stirs from a nap and notices a sheet of paper that’s been slid under his apartment door, “notice to quit” in bold black letters across the top.

Upon receiving an eviction notice, most people start packing right away, said Mary Bauer, chair of the Charlottesville Human Rights Commission. “They start packing and they move, because they don’t understand that they have options” that an eviction notice does not mean they have to get out.

On April 5, the Human Rights Commission, along with a number of other local aid and advocacy groups, implored the City Council to fully fund a $460,000 right to counsel program that would provide attorneys to tenants — specifically low-income tenants — in eviction proceedings to reduce the overall number of evictions in the city and the resulting trauma caused to individuals and the community.

Charlottesville’s eviction crisis is nothing new, but it has received more attention over the past few years due to racial equity initiatives and the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis is expected to worsen significantly when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s temporary halt in residential evictions to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 ends June 30.

(The CDC moratorium applies only to failure-to-pay-rent cases, though, and landlords can, and do, still legally file evictions against tenants for other reasons, such as noise violations.)

“Right to counsel in the criminal system is a given,” said Jake Gold, a housing advocate and community organizer who is also a member of Democratic Del. Sally Hudson’s staff. “It’s the Sixth Amendment.”

Any individual facing criminal charges is guaranteed representation by an attorney, regardless of whether they can afford it, but that’s not true for people facing eviction, Gold points out, asking, “What if we told defendants in criminal trials that they had to represent themselves in court against an experienced prosecutor who knows how to talk to the judge, how to call evidence, who knows the law and how to use it to their client’s benefit? We’d think that’s absurd. So, why is it acceptable in eviction cases? After all, evictions are hugely traumatizing, hugely disruptive [and can] have the same negative impacts on someone’s future as criminal prosecution.”

mary bauer

Mary Bauer

Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Bauer agreed, adding that “Eviction has such profound ramifications in people’s lives” and can set off a domino effect of devastating events that’s hard to stop once it’s begun. Someone who’s facing eviction because they can’t pay rent isn’t likely to have the funds saved for the first month’s rent and security deposit on a new place or a suitable place.

“I have seen many tenants who are paying exorbitant prices for substandard housing, because their options are so limited by things like a poor credit report or an eviction on their record. That meant a lot of apartment complexes wouldn’t rent to them, and that really profoundly limits the options that are available in a city where there aren’t really very many options anyway,” Bauer said.

According to the Virginia Court Data Project, landlords filed an estimated 700 eviction cases against Charlottesville tenants in 2019. Approximately half of these cases ended in an eviction judgement, while the other half was dismissed. But, as the April 5 letter Bauer presented to the council on behalf of the Human Rights Commission — and cosigned by the Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America, the University of Virginia Equity Center, Legal Aid Justice Center, Piedmont Housing Alliance, Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, Public Housing Association of Residents and the Charlottesville Redevelopment Housing Authority — there’s ample evidence that a well-funded right to counsel program would change that. 

Some of that evidence comes from the Charlottesville DSA, whose housing team justice members have been collecting data on local eviction proceedings since mid-July 2020. (Local courts only track the number of trials, and a large majority of eviction hearings do not proceed to trial.) As of March 9, they’d observed 142 of 259 eviction hearings in Charlottesville, and presented their findings to the City Council during a March budget meeting. 

The DSA’s volunteer observers found that nearly half of tenants did not even show up to court, and of those tenants who did not show up at the first hearing, about half of them received an eviction judgment (others had their hearings continued, dismissed or, less likely, set for trial). 

Since most tenants face eviction because they cannot pay their rent, it’s not surprising that few of the tenants (7.7%) who were present for their initial hearings had legal representation. But those who did generally had better outcomes: Their cases were either dismissed or sent to trial — none received an eviction judgment at that first hearing. 

Landlords almost always showed up, though, and with legal representation.

All of this tracks with national data compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said that eviction proceedings are usually stacked against tenants, with around 90% of landlords having counsel, compared to fewer than 10% of tenants.

Even if a tenant receives an eviction notice and wants to leave, “it’s far better to get a lawyer to negotiate that exit so that it’s not an eviction on someone’s record,” said Bauer.

“This is a process that’s designed to disempower tenants,” said Emma Goehler, the member of the DSA’s housing justice team who presented the group’s findings to the council and who also participated in the group’s anti-eviction canvassing efforts, informing individual tenants of their rights. “We’re really interested in trying to give tenants the knowledge that they need to fight for the right to stay in their homes. It’s really about empowering tenants.”

Bauer called the DSA’s efforts “herculean.”

Having legal counsel for eviction proceedings usually means that people get to stay in their homes, and that’s been proven by well-funded right to counsel programs in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco and Cleveland, among a few others. 

“Right to counsel is one of the most tested, one of the most effective ways we can keep people in their homes,” Gold said. “In every place that it’s been tried, you see huge results in better outcomes for tenants who would otherwise have to navigate a complex legal system alone, and you see fewer landlords filing eviction suits in the first place.”

In previous meetings, the City Council discussed allotting $117,000 in American Recovery Act funds, due to arrive in May, for the right to counsel program. But that’s not enough, Bauer wrote in the letter.

The Legal Aid Justice Center estimates that 300 low-income tenants (those living at 200% of the poverty level and below) will be eligible for counsel, and one full-time lawyer can handle about 100 cases annually. Three full time lawyers working for $120,000 annually brings lawyer costs alone to about $360,000, and the center recommends an outreach position to be added to let folks know that this resource is available to them.

All told, the letter requests $460,000 for the right to counsel program.

“The scope of the eviction crisis that will follow the expiration of the eviction moratorium (and beyond) requires that you fully fund these efforts to give tenants in eviction proceedings a fair shot at remaining in their homes,” Bauer wrote in the letter. 

All five councilors, as well as City Manager Chip Boyles, voiced support for the program at last Monday’s meeting, and Bauer, Gold and others are pleased about that.

“We are heartened by your willingness to commit meaningful funding towards legal defense for tenants facing eviction this budget cycle, as we know there is currently some money in the budget to provide funding for this purpose,” Bauer wrote in the letter.

But, “whether it’s going to happen, whether it’s going to be rolled out correctly, whether it’s going to be adequately funded, we still need to see those details,” said Bauer, adding that there’s no good way to decide which cases would receive counsel if the program is not fully funded. 

If the council votes to fully fund it this budget cycle, Charlottesville would be the first city in the South to have such a program. And it could serve as a model for right to counsel programs in other Virginia localities with high eviction rates, like Richmond and Tazewell, which could then serve as a pilot program for something statewide. “Charlottesville has an opportunity here to be a huge catalyst for change,” Gold said. 

And, if councilors aren’t convinced, perhaps the economics of it could sway them, Gold said. Data from other cities with right to counsel programs like this shows that “right to counsel pays for itself very quickly just in the homelessness prevention piece. When you stop people from becoming homeless, you alleviate pressure on shelters, EMS and hospital services and more,” he said. 

“The data shows it’s economically good for cities that adopt these policies,” Bauer added. “And it’s economically good for families, economically good for communities. I don’t think that’s the basis on which I would make my decision, if I were a councilor, but it’s true.”

She said she’d think more about the personal benefit to families, to that single mother looking for a job so that she can provide for her kids or the elderly person who can’t afford an apartment on Social Security checks alone. She’d think about the overall benefit to the community because, as the pandemic has shown us, we’re all connected, whether we choose to acknowledge those ties.

A right to counsel program could also move the dial toward a more equitable Charlottesville, Bauer said: Evictions disproportionately affect people of color, Black women in particular.

“There is a long history of profound racial injustice in this city, and this is a step toward rectifying a small bit of that,” she said.

“I think it’s a moral imperative.”