This is a letter to the editor from Carl Feuer of the Ithaca Eviction/Displacement Defense Project for International Tenants Day. To submit opinion letters, please review our letters policy here and submit them to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

The imbalance of power between tenants and landlords is perhaps most stark in Eviction Court, where tenants who are disproportionately lower-income and people of color, face a potentially life-changing and devastating eviction. But few have a lawyer.

Almost all of the landlords do.

When I reviewed each and every eviction case that came before the court in 2018, the most striking and shocking finding was that of the 70 individuals and families whom the court ordered evicted, only two had legal representation. For the landlords, lawyers were present in every case but three.

The systemic racism embedded in the system was also disturbing. In cases where race and/or ethnicity could be identified, over 50 percent impacted Black or Latinx people in 2018.

While anyone in Ithaca accused of a criminal offense has the right to counsel regardless of their means, no one accused of violating their tenancy does. It is a skewed legal battle and a fundamentally unfair situation. Yes, a criminal sentence carries the risk of jail time, and this severe consequence justifies providing counsel, but a court-ordered eviction carries its own severe implications and the personal and family consequences can be analogous. 

In some cases of eviction, for example, the “defendants” are in effect “sentenced” to homelessness and having a court-ordered eviction on your record can ruin credit and employment histories and limit future housing options (landlords use screening services to weed out tenants they deem undesirable). If children are involved, as is often the case, an eviction will destabilize schooling and achievement. Displacement from your home  can be devastating.

There is a substantial cost to the community as well when a tenant is wrongfully evicted. This includes the costs of emergency shelter, foster care, juvenile delinquency, possible job loss, etc.. It is cheaper for courts to provide a lawyer than for us all to pay the cascading social costs of eviction. 

Providing legal services is the most cost effective option because tenants hauled into eviction court are not often “guilty as charged.” But any defenses they may have are virtually impossible to identify, let alone prove, without a lawyer. Housing law is complicated and becomes even more opaque when new provisions are tacked on, as with the recent passage of two NYS tenant protections laws (the 2019 Housing Stability and 2020 Tenant Safe Harbor Acts).

Early data from Right to Counsel programs in other municipalities confirms that most eviction complaints do not stand up in court when tenants have lawyers. In NYC, over 80 percent of represented tenants facing evictions were able to remain in their home; in Cleveland 93 percent; other cities have 75-85 percent success rates. 

Right to Counsel is not only equitable and cost effective for tenants and the City, it is now more possible for Ithaca than it has ever been. First, American Recovery Plan funds or other grants might be available to leverage the start of such a program. Second, there are existing legal resources to build upon from the Ithaca Eviction/Displacement Defense Project and its partners, including LawNY and Cornell Law School’s Tenant Rights Practicum. Tenants can access these legal resources and other support by dialing 2-1-1 or the Tenants’ Rights Hotline at 607-301-1560, www.ithacatenantresources.org/tlh.

Before Ithaca orders a tenant evicted, we need to hear from both sides. But only one side is typically represented in court. Right to Counsel changes that and the City should make it happen now.