Data shows pro bono representation helping to curb evictions, homelessness

"It does give a person a sense of hope and empowerment."

Sloane Martin
October 17, 2019 - 4:54 pm

Minneapolis city officials are applauding the first year of a program intended to help families maintain stable housing and keep them out of homeless shelters.

Donell McDowell missed worked when his father passed away, which caused him to be 5 days late with his rent. His landlord evicted him. 

McDowell couldn't afford a lawyer, unlike the landlord. Instead of being asked to leave his apartment, help from the Volunteer Lawyers Network and Legal Aid allowed him to work out a settlement so he could stay.

His lawyer is also working on expunging the eviction from his record.

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"It's a very relieving feeling knowing that there's so much other stuff going on but you have somebody in your corner to fight for you," McDowell said.

Legal Aid and the Volunteer Lawyers Network studied 374 eviction cases in Hennepin County between January and June 2018. It found that fully represented tenants are twice as likely to stay in their homes and get twice as much time to move if they choose to. Nearly 80 percent of tenants with lawyers leave court without an eviction record stemming from the case compared to just 6 percent of unrepresented ones.

Fully-represented tenants are four times less likely to use homeless shelters; and unrepresented tenants are between four and five times more likely than fully-represented ones to face "the worst possible outcome of an eviction case: the abrupt, forced removal from their homes by sheriff's deputies."

Study co-author Luke Grundman with Legal Aid says having a lawyer makes a significant difference not just in outcomes, but emotionally.

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"You sort of see the hope dying from their eyes about what their choices are and what could happen to them," he said of overwhelmed and frightened tenants. "Giving them a lawyer, and all of a sudden saying, 'That's my lawyer. That person's going to be the one to go into court, talk to the judge for me, talk to my landlord's attorney.' More and more landlords have attorneys. It does give a person a sense of hope and empowerment."

Mayor Jacob Frey and city leaders launched More Representation Minneapolis last year connecting pro bono lawyers to tenants needing help. It's reached its one-year goal of increasing legal representation by 20 percent about three months ahead of schedule.

"We've seen over decades unscrupulous landlords that have the backing of powerful attorneys and money going up against these smaller-time tenants," Frey said. "And here's the thing: they win. They win. The tenant gets evicted. They're then potentially facing homelessness and they have an eviction that is on their record for the long haul. That's destabilizing for the individual and it's destabilizing for our communities."

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