Right to Counsel Could Stave Off Worst of Eviction Crisis

In the midst of a nationwide eviction crisis, Wisconsin cities are establishing legal right to counsel for tenants.

Peter Gorski

A West Allis, Wis., resident receives an eviction notice on her home in March 2020. Darren Hauck for The Washington Post via Getty Images

As of mid-October, over 75,000 Wisconsin residents live in households that are behind on rent and mortgage payments. In La Crosse County, an estimated 1,752 households are behind on rent, with an average rental debt of $2,100. This translates to a total of $3.68 million in rental debt for the county.

No longer protected by the federal eviction moratorium, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in August, communities around Wisconsin are beginning to see a steady increase in evictions. In the weeks following the moratorium’s end, there has been a 38% increase in eviction filings in La Crosse, and a 54% increase statewide, or, almost 92 new cases a day.

As eviction cases continue to pile up and rental assistance funds remain backlogged, La Crosse city and county officials, social services professionals and advocacy groups are developing a program offering legal counsel for tenants to mitigate a mounting eviction crisis. Beyond the pandemic, a right to counsel program for those facing evictions will save the county thousands in reduced spending on emergency shelter and policing, as well as keeping hundreds of tenants in their homes.

Eviction is more than a change of address, it can be a loss of community, affect a tenant’s employment, child custody agreements, and ability to receive benefits like Badgercare and nutritional assistance. An eviction judgement against a tenant often carries with it steep monetary judgments for back rent and damages, in addition to the added costs of securing new housing. 

Renters who are evicted in Wisconsin also have a legal record of it for up to 10 years on the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) — an open record system in Wisconsin that landlords use to vet renters— severely limiting their rental options. A simple case filing, with no judgement and no eviction, follows renters for two years, and requires a convoluted administrative process to expunge from CCAP. Tenants can request that the case be sealed or expunged if the case is open and taken to court and the eviction is dropped or dismissed, but the process must be done by the judge. Reopening the case after closure requires more paperwork and court navigation, and most tenants have neither the time nor skillset to follow through with clearing their name.

A disorganized landlord may attach an eviction record to the wrong tenant through a simple clerical error on court paperwork. A malicious landlord could file a case on any tenant they don’t like for $100.

Over $45 billion has been allocated for rental assistance by federal stimulus bills in December and March 2021, but as of October, less than 22% of funds have been spent nationally. Wisconsin, which received about $322 million in rental and energy assistance relief, has distributed about 20% of these funds to renters. 

Many of the nonprofits administering these programs are understaffed and overwhelmed with the mounting caseloads. Recent reporting from Wisconsin Public Radio shows some tenants waiting over 6 months for relief.

CouleeCAP, a nonprofit in southwestern Wisconsin, has administered all Covid-19 relief based rental assistance programs for La Crosse, Vernon, Monroe and Crawford Counties. Since last February, Couleecap has distributed over $8 million in rental relief funds to over 2,200 households. As of mid-October, CouleeCAP has over 600 applicants in prescreening or awaiting processing.

While renters await federal funds, La Crosse County Board Supervisors Maureen Freedland, Monica Kruse and Kim Cable, along with city alderperson Mark Neumann are developing a legal counsel program for La Crosse. The eviction right to counsel program would staff lawyers at the courthouse assisting tenants on site, and in mid-November received $30,000 in initial funding from the 2022 La Crosse County budget— about one third of the program’s estimated cost. 

Eviction right to counsel as a mediation program is a tool gaining steam nationally. Connecticut, Maryland, and Washington all have state legislation providing legal counsel to tenants facing eviction. Rochester, Baltimore, Boulder and San Francisco also have programs in place at the city level guaranteeing counsel to every tenant. 

Many of these programs are new, passing in the last six years. However, early signs point toward real impact. In a 2019 report from New York City’s Office of Civil Justice, 86% of individuals represented by counsel remained in their homes, and evictions dropped by 41%. In Cleveland, 2021 report from Right To Counsel-Cleveland shows that 93% of tenants who used a similar program avoided eviction or an involuntary move. 

Eviction counsel programs can provide relief to city budgets as well. A 2019 study from the Los Angeles Right to Counsel Coalition and Stout, a global advisory firm, estimates that an eviction counsel program would save the city $305 million in emergency shelter and housing program costs. Landlords are also less likely to file frivolous cases knowing they will face a trained lawyer in court, resulting in a decreased burden on the court system, further lowering the cost for the eviction counsel program.

In September Milwaukee, a city that accounts for 24% of the state tenant population but almost 50% of all eviction filings in 2021, passed a resolution establishing a county level right to eviction counsel for every resident. 

Savings at the county level are difficult to calculate, as the budget impacts of decreased eviction and homelessness are spread out over policing and court costs, as well as shelter and homelessness services needs. One easy comparison is Milwaukee’s Eviction Defense Project. This program preceded the current legal counsel the county is now providing, with a pro-bono system administered by paid staff. From 2017-2018, for each dollar spent on the Eviction Defense Project, there was a $2.33 return on investment for housing, healthcare, police and other costs. With a similar return on investment in La Crosse, an eviction defense program is estimated to save about the county over $100,000.

The overall shape and severity of the eviction crisis remains to be seen, but the early signs for Wisconsin are not good. Federal packages have sent tens of millions of dollars into our community. The county of La Crosse, in partnership with the municipalities receiving bailout funds can use this once in a generation opportunity to address homelessness and establish eviction right to counsel.

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Peter Gorski is a freelance writer based in La Crosse, and member of Coulee Tenants United.

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