Earlier this month, the Biden administration issued a 60-day reprieve from evictions in counties experiencing high rates of coronavirus transmission. That category currently includes most of the country. As a result of COVID-19, housing insecurity has an outsized effect not only on personal safety, but also on public health, and so the moratorium was issued by the CDC shortly after Congress allowed the previous eviction ban to expire. The problem is, when government provides these sorts of protections, evictions don’t automatically stop. Securing benefits often requires advocacy, proof and paperwork.
As the White House has noted, “the burdens of this economic crisis are hitting communities of color and other underserved families hardest¹.” Unfortunately, these are the very Americans least likely to be able to navigate the system to avail themselves of the protections and assistance offered to counter the impact of the ongoing pandemic. If we really want to provide equitable economic relief to all Americans during this crisis, we must adequately fund civil legal aid — a critical resource for many low-income Americans, and particularly for women and communities of color².
It will come as no surprise that there has been a spike both in eligibility and demand for legal aid services as the pandemic continues to disrupt the lives and financial security of people across the country. Last summer, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) conducted a survey studying COVID-19’s effects on legal aid organizations and low-income Americans seeking legal help. On average, legal aid organizations surveyed reported an 18 percent increase in the number of eligible clients³ — people who live in households with annual incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines — in 2021, that is $16,100 for an individual, $33,125 for a family of four in most states⁴. Compounding this eligibility increase is the increase in need for assistance with evictions and foreclosures, problems with stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, and protection from domestic violence, which has heartbreakingly emerged as a pandemic within the pandemic⁵.
Even before 2020 legal aid was severely under resourced. Studies consistently showed that 80% of the civil legal needs of the eligible population were not being met⁶. LSC grantees found that due to lack of resources they were unable to provide adequate assistance for between 62 and 72 percent of the legal problems for which clients sought counsel⁷. In the spring of last year Congress appropriated $50 million for 132 legal aid organizations across all 50 states, DC and US territories to respond to civil legal needs arising out of the pandemic⁸. This amount was clearly insufficient to meet the increase in cases and the new technology required for remote meetings and hearings to keep lawyers and clients safe. The omnibus COVID relief legislation enacted in December included no additional funding for legal aid.
LSC is asking Congress for an appropriation of over $1 billion in its 2022 FY budget request to meet the need for pandemic-related legal services and close the justice gap. As an example of the import of this request, consider evictions alone: housing was the most common legal issue facing low-income Americans pre-COVID, and the percentage of legal aid caseloads attributable to housing has nearly doubled since⁹.
Increased funding for legal aid must be a priority in our effort to provide Americans a path out of poverty and chart a course for economic recovery. Two years ago, New York became the first city in the United States to guarantee legal representation for every tenant facing eviction. Since then, San Francisco, Newark, Philadelphia and Cleveland have followed suit¹⁰. The City of Cleveland began to guarantee the right to counsel for tenants facing eviction in June of last year. The effect of this legislation is proof positive of the centrality of legal aid to any recovery plan: in the first six months of the Cleveland program, 93 percent of clients who were at risk for eviction and were represented by a Legal Aid attorney in Cleveland Housing Court were able avoid being displaced¹¹.This result is not only important to public health, it is also crucial to families — housing instability can have wide-ranging and serious consequences, particularly for children, and an eviction can make it difficult for a tenant to secure subsequent housing.
Legal assistance for those facing eviction also saves money¹². A cost-benefit analysis of a right to counsel in eviction cases in New York City found that $251 million would be saved by preventing 5,237 families from entering shelters; $9 million would be saved by preventing 278 individuals from entering unsheltered homelessness.
An eviction moratorium is not housing security. As long as the system requires hurdle-jumping to access legal protections and benefits, we must adequately fund the organizations — like legal aid — that provide assistance in making government promises reality for Americans in need.
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