The Chicago Department of Housing Announces Right to Counsel Pilot Program
Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing and Beyond Legal Aid will provide free legal services to vulnerable low-income renters facing possible eviction in new program launching later this year
The Chicago Department of Housing (DOH) today announced the selected service providers for a new program to help vulnerable renters facing eviction. The Right to Counsel (RTC) Pilot Program will provide legal representation at no cost to eligible lowincome tenants at risk of or subject to eviction or lockout in Chicago. The RTC Pilot Program services will be provided through two legal aid groups, one led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing alongside Legal Aid Chicago and the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS); and the other through Beyond Legal Aid, both selected through a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by DOH in November 2021. Both contracts will be awarded on a one-year basis, renewable for up to two additional years, at the discretion of the City based on the respondent's performance.
"Just as the Department of Housing works to expand housing access and choice for all residents regardless of income or zip code, through the Right to Counsel pilot program, we are working to ensure that those vulnerable to eviction have the legal representation they need to help them remain in their homes,” said DOH Commissioner Marisa Novara. “Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing and Beyond Legal Aid have been invaluable partners throughout the pandemic, helping renters stay safely housed, and I am excited that we can continue this invaluable partnership to protect Chicago tenants from unnecessary eviction.”
The three-year pilot program, supported by $8 million of Emergency Rental Assistance Program 2 (ERAP2) housing stabilization services funding, will play a pivotal role in preventing and minimizing the disruption and damage caused by the eviction process.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout have created massive housing instability across the country, especially as eviction moratoriums lifted. One of the leading interventions to prevent evictions is legal assistance; however, far too often, lowincome residents cannot afford legal representation to negotiate on their behalf. In eviction lawsuits nationwide, an estimated 90% of landlords have legal representation, compared to only 10% of tenants. Unrepresented renters are much more likely to lose their cases and their homes, regardless of the merits of their case. The RTC Pilot Program will provide free legal representation to prevent renters from being evicted.
The Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing and its partner agencies, Legal Aid Chicago and CARPLS, will provide full-and limited-scope legal representation at no cost to eligible lowincome tenants at risk of or subject to eviction in Chicago. Beyond Legal Aid will provide legal services through its network of community-located, community-operated, and community-directed legal aid programs.
“We are excited that the Chicago Department of Housing has chosen Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing to pilot this program. With this investment, Chicago moves closer to joining New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other major cities and states that have formally adopted a Right to Counsel in eviction court,” said Mark Swartz, Executive Director of Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. “This project will allow us and our partners to expand our free legal and supportive services that help stabilize tenants with limited incomes who might otherwise become homeless.”
“Beyond Legal Aid is thrilled to partner with the Chicago Department of Housing to provide access to justice for tenants: directly in their neighborhoods,’ said Lam Nguyen, Executive Director of Beyond Legal Aid. “The Right to Counsel pilot program will ensure that we can not only increase free legal services for but also empower the self-advocacy of those facing eviction through our existing network of community-located, community-operated, and community-directed legal aid programs. It will also enable Beyond to build additional partnerships with new, underserved communities.”
To be eligible, tenants must meet all four of the following criteria:
- Have an income less than or equal to 80% of the area median income based on household size.
- Be a tenant currently residing in a property intended for residential use.
- Be part of a household in which one or more individuals have experienced a reduction of household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced other financial hardship during or due, directly or indirectly, to the coronavirus pandemic.
- Be part of a household where one or more individuals can demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
The Right to Counsel Pilot Program will provide the following services:
- Client intake for low-income Chicagoans at risk of eviction or constructive eviction (RLTO Section 5-12-110 and 5-12-120(j)). Intake may occur either directly through the Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt (CCLAHD) program or through advertising to the general public.
- Evaluation of potential tenants’ eligibility for receiving RTC services, tracking those determinations and outcomes, and coordinating with the CCLAHD program to ensure as much as possible those most in need achieve a fair outcome in their case.
- Providing full-scale eviction defense services, in court or out of court, to eligible tenants who meet prioritization criteria for limited scope or extended representation beyond the brief legal services already available to City residents through the CCLAHD program. DOH will determine prioritization criteria for extended representation in consultation with partners to maximize the impact of the RTC services.
- Assistance to tenants to avoid or reduce the negative impacts of a potential eviction, such as referrals to housing counseling; fair housing counseling; housing navigators or promotoras that help households access emergency rental assistance programs or find housing; case management related to housing stability; housing-related services for survivors of domestic abuse or human trafficking, and specialized services for individuals with disabilities or seniors that support their ability to access or maintain housing.
- Regular reporting on activities.
A $300,000 grant from Polk Bros. Foundation to the Chicago Bar Foundation will support a formal evaluation of the Right to Counsel Pilot Program and its success in preventing evictions, as well as an assessment of the total costs necessary to implement a sustainable eviction right to counsel program in Chicago. DOH will work closely with the Chicago Bar Foundation and Stout, a Chicago company, to conduct a 3-year cost-benefit analysis of the RTC pilot. Stout will develop a comprehensive, sustainable data platform to identify the fiscal, financial, and community impacts of eviction prevention and defense and inform current understanding of the importance of providing legal representation and other supportive services to low-income tenants facing eviction.
“Eviction has immense collateral consequences,” said Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Debbie Reznick. “The displacement and instability caused by the eviction process can exacerbate physical and mental health issues, disrupt children’s educations, impact job performance, and ultimately lead to illness, unemployment, and homelessness. Learnings from the evaluation of the Right to Counsel Pilot Program will inform efforts to expand and sustain legal representation and other supportive services for tenants facing eviction.”
The Right to Counsel Pilot Program is part of the City’s continued efforts to keep residents safely housed and ensure their right to affordable housing opportunities through all 77 communities and across all 50 wards and its comprehensive COVID-19 response. To date, DOH has administered four rental assistance programs since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing nearly $180 million to over 27,000 households.
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