San Antonio could be the first city in Texas to pilot a Right to Counsel initiative to guarantee renters in eviction proceedings secure legal help and, in turn, increase the likelihood that a family can stay rooted in their home.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño proposed earmarking $100,000 from the city’s $1 million Displacement Risk Mitigation Fund to pay for the initiative. The city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department confirmed that the Right To Counsel pilot would be included in the department’s 2020 budget proposal. The San Antonio City Council will vote on the city’s entire budget on September 12.
According to 2018 court records, there were 16,000 eviction filings in Bexar County and about 150 of them were decided in favor of the renter. Eight in 10 of the filings were decided in favor of the landlord.
The push for bolstering renters’ rights comes after months of joint educational efforts from local tenant advocates, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Texas Housers.
National studies have shown there are roughly four evictions every minute in the country and rarely are tenants represented by an attorney. The proceedings can not only put families at risk of homelessness, but can affect future chances of securing a decent home, as landlords often check eviction records. Displacement can cause or exacerbate mental health issues, jeopardize physical health, and destabilize kids in school. One study also shows that evictions might worsen poverty.
There is a growing movement to ameliorate the effects of eviction filings. In New York City, renters who are at risk of being evicted and whose incomes falls below the poverty line are guaranteed an attorney. Before the program, 1% of New York City renters were represented by an attorney while the vast majority of landlords showed up to court with a lawyer. In 2016, the Right to Counsel program in New York provided attorneys for a quarter of tenants in eviction proceedings and evictions fell by 24%.
There are many reasons a tenant could be evicted from their home. They might have been unable to pay rent because of an emergency. They might have reported unsafe living conditions and their landlord retaliated. What makes involuntary displacement for low-income and vulnerable renters particularly impactful is that it takes a lot of time and resources to find a decent place to live – and even then, there’s no guarantee. There are more than 800,000 extremely low-income households in Texas and for every 100 of those households, there are only 29 apartments affordable to them.
For a tenant facing displacement and homelessness, showing up to eviction court with an advocate by their side could keep them housed and safe, and keep kids and families rooted in their communities.