Four of Connecticut’s major cities—Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury—are now ranked among the 100 cities nationally with the highest eviction rates. Lawyers can do much to prevent or mitigate the poverty-causing effects of evictions, and we must do more to address this growing crisis.
Last month, sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond launched The Eviction Lab, the first-ever national database of eviction records. Connecticut’s overall eviction rate (meaning the percent of renting households that are evicted every year) at 3.04 percent is higher than the national average. The data from several of our major cities paints an even more troubling picture. With Waterbury at 6.1 percent, Hartford at 5.73 percent, Bridgeport at 5.03 percent and New Haven at 4.05 percent, we have some of the highest eviction rates in the country in almost all of our major cities. The Eviction Lab is an eye-opening resource, one that shines the light on a pressing societal and legal issue here in Connecticut.
The problem is one that overwhelmingly threatens families, as the average age of a homeless person in America, as reported by Desmond in his video introduction to the site, is 9 years old. Rising housing costs are part of the problem. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach 2017 study finds that a modest two-bedroom fair market rental apartment in Connecticut requires almost two and a half minimum wage full-time jobs to be affordable. Evictions, however, become a self-perpetuating harm, with far-reaching effects. Desmond’s 2016 book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” is a must-read and highlights the extent to which evictions are a cause—and not a product—of poverty. Evictions destabilize families and communities, contribute to negative health outcomes, adversely affect educational progress, create obstacles to obtaining better and publicly subsidized housing, and have great societal economic impact in the form of high-cost emergency interventions such as shelters and emergency medical care. Each eviction makes it successively harder for a family to access decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing, putting that family further and further away from securing a real place to call home.
Desmond and others have referred to this growing eviction rate as a housing and eviction crisis. The problems are long-standing and familiar to us in Connecticut. The Connecticut Bar Foundation’s 2008 Civil Legal Needs Among Low-Income Households in Connecticut study reported that 49 percent of low-income households surveyed reported having a legal housing problem, by far the most prevalent category of legal needs reported. The eviction crisis is also a legal crisis, as the rising tide of evictions highlights the number of self-represented litigants in housing court, causing many to call for the creation of a “Civil Gideon” right to counsel. According to Connecticut Judicial Branch data contained in the 2016 Report of the Task Force to Improve Access to Legal Counsel in Civil Matters (Civil Gideon Task Force Report), 75 percent of housing court cases involve at least one self-represented party. A 2013 report to the Connecticut Judicial Branch Access to Justice Commission represented the same, elaborating that at least two-thirds of defendant-tenants were self-represented litigants.
Connecticut legal aid and pro bono lawyers strive daily to stem the tide. The eviction crisis, however, has continued despite these significant interventions, and we must do more. In August 2017, New York City enacted a law that guarantees a lawyer to every resident, at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, facing eviction. San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities have explored or launched pilot programs to increase legal representation in evictions.
Several studies have shown the wisdom of right-to-counsel programs in eviction cases. In a March 2012 pilot-project study by the Boston Bar Association, “The Importance of Representation in Eviction Cases and Homelessness Prevention,” tenants with legal representation “fared, on average, twice as well in terms of retaining possession, and almost five times as well in terms of rent waived and monetary awards” as compared to a control group. A 2016 study commissioned by the New York City Bar Association, “The Financial Cost and Benefits of Establishing a Right to Counsel in Eviction Proceedings Under Intro 214-A,” found that enacting a civil right to counsel for eviction defendants at 200 percent of the federal poverty level would save New York City $320 million annually, when accounting for savings in shelter, health care and law enforcement costs.
We are aware of the financial realities facing Connecticut and many of our major cities right now. But this may be the best time to explore whether an investment in a right to counsel in eviction matters would help improve outcomes for Connecticut families, while also alleviating financial burdens placed on our state and municipal governments. A pilot program in Waterbury, Hartford, Bridgeport or New Haven, with resources committed for appropriate data collection and analysis, would be a good place to start. Given the high eviction rates in all of these cities, now is the time to invest in a more robust solution to Connecticut’s continuing eviction crisis.