Justice Changes Everything: Balancing The Scales In Housing Court

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Black mold in the bathroom. Broken screens. Heat that doesn’t work, water-damaged ceilings, nonfunctional toilets. Extra fees charged for children playing on the patio, for parking, or for opening a window in March. These are some of the reasons that Hennepin County tenants withhold rent and face eviction in Hennepin County Housing Court.

Thanks to Hennepin County’s new Eviction Representation Project, a pilot program of Legal Aid and Volunteer Lawyers Network, more tenants will have an experienced attorney to represent them when their landlord pursues illegal eviction.

Doug Clark, a Legal Aid staff attorney with over 30 years of experience in housing law, has taken the lead on the new project. Sometimes he helps with simple negotiation over a misunderstanding. The landlord receives their rent, the client either continues the lease or leaves with a clean record and everyone wins with minimal demand on Housing Court resources. In cases that go to trial, the tenants have an attorney able to fully articulate all the facts underlying their defense. Often, Clark asks the court to determine that health or safety problems exist and orders repairs and reduced or returned rent.

In Hennepin County eviction cases, fewer than 5 percent of tenants have attorneys and many are in court for the first time. In contrast, 40-45 percent of landlords have counsel and those without attorneys often have professional property management agents who understand the eviction process and have done it many times.

“There’s a complete inequity and imbalance in sophistication when it comes to navigating that system,” says Legal Aid supervising attorney Drew Schaffer. “The advice services offered by the already existing Housing Court Project are invaluable. They arm people with information about their rights and support to defend themselves. But there are many cases where advice doesn’t fully vindicate the person’s rights.”

The Eviction Representation Project offers an increased level of service. When Housing Court Project attorneys find a case with a strong defense, Clark jumps in. He gets the client’s full story, investigates the legal details and fills out the paperwork. If possible, he negotiates a settlement with the landlord. If not, he represents the client all the way through trial.

According to the New York Times, increased investment in eviction defense by legal aid in New York City has contributed to an 18 percent decrease in evictions and significantly increased savings in the area of homelessness services. Outcomes already tracked by Legal Aid for housing clients indicate the potential for similar results in Minnesota.

“We could have two or three attorneys doing the same work and still not meet all of the need,” says Schaffer. “We expect to demonstrate improved outcomes sufficient to warrant additional support and funding for more representation. Full representation is an overall force for stable housing.”  Leykn Schmatz

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