Legal Services initiatives

What are promising practices to scale up legal services — both among lawyers who can represent tenants, as well as community navigators and technology tools that can help scale up legal capability?

Lawyers, legal navigators, and other legal professionals can help people facing eviction to resolve their problems & get to better long-term outcomes.

What are promising practices to scale up legal services — both among lawyers who can represent tenants, as well as community navigators and technology tools that can help scale up legal capability?

Legal aid groups, courts, self-help centers, and pro bono groups have a variety of ways to help people struggling in the eviction legal system. Their programs, outreach, and efforts give ways to stop a lawsuit, or deal with it once it’s under way.

Eviction Diversion Programs and Prevention programs, that stop court actions against tenants with emergency funds, mediation, and securing housing for the tenants

Find your local legal aid groups at this Housing Legal Aid Providers map from the National Center for State Courts

Every jurisdiction has its legal aid groups. To help them provide more services to at-risk tenants, work with them to amplify their current work.

Steps to improve support & impact of legal aid groups:

  • Map out which groups offer Housing Law groups — inquire about their needs, their capacity, and how volunteers can sign up
  • Coordinate Eviction Intake, so multiple groups can all have a single intake — and that they can share aggregate data about their cases and services
  • Map out services provided — inquire if they are able to do the range of eviction defense, brief advice, and form assistance, and work on supplementing existing programs if there are gaps
  • Volunteer training: See if the legal aid group has capacity to provide training to volunteers
  • In-court clinics: Explore how they could be more present in court, through drop-in clinics, attendance at virtual hearings, or otherwise
  • Funding for more staff and services: Increase their capacity to see more clients (full-representation or brief)
  • Improved websites: Put more DIY and self-help resources on their website, so people know more about the process, resources to use, and how to use legal aid

Right to Counsel

Read more about the right to counsel at the National Coalition for a Right to Counsel

Right to Counsel is a mandate — ideally with funding — that every tenant sued for eviction can apply for & receive a free full-representation lawyer.

This means everyone facing eviction has a free lawyer. Sometimes this is called Civil Gideon — providing the same right in the civil justice system as in the criminal one.

A Right to Counsel program, once it exists, then needs to be supported with user-centered program design and effective, data-driven coordination among providers. There should be a website, hotline, and referrals to ensure tenants know about this right – -and can easily, promptly use it.

Court-based Self-Help Clinics, Legal Services, and Navigators can provide key legal help when people are coming to the courthouse for a hearing (or other kinds of help.

These legal help services at court can provide:

  • Free lawyers that can represent a person at court, after consulting with them earlier that day, adn then helping them make a follow-up plan
  • Brief advice clinics from lawyers that can help a person with 30 minutes or less consultations about choices, next steps, and strategies
  • Mediation and settlement support from trained lawyers or mediators, that can help a person while negotiating with the other side
  • Process navigation and document help, from lawyers, justice advocates, community navigators, or court self-help staff, to help the person with form-filling, understanding the process, and making sense of legalese
  • Accompaniment through the process by a trained navigator, to support a person through the courthouse, in the hearing, and after by providing procedural support (not legal advice) and emotional support.

Housing Court Navigators in New York: non-lawyers who accompany tenants through the procedure https://www.nycourts.gov/courts/nyc/housing/rap_participating.shtml, with a research study of outcomes by the American Bar Foundation

Lawyer For the Day clinics in Massachusetts housing courts, with free lawyers available to people coming into housing hearings

In Milwaukee and Dane Counties, the Eviction Defense Project that is a court-based legal service for families in Milwaukee Counties, with brief legal services, negotiations, and in-court representation.

Collaborative Housing Courts

Collaborative housing courts transform how the rules, procedures, and experiences of a lawsuit’s meetings and trials go. Taking examples from other collaborative and problem-solving courts, these kinds of redesigned housing courts are focused on identifying services, supporting stable relationships, improving people’s outcomes, and finding mutually conducive resolutions to problems.

Some examples of collaborative housing court exist in Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, NY (read its origin story), and the Harlem Community Justice Center

  • Rochester, NY is considering a new housing court model, that would allow the court to make orders to landlord about habitability; allow tenants to represent themselves more easily; and have more court-supervised administrators following up to make sure necessary changes are made

Pro Bono Volunteers

Pro Bono Mobilization can increase the supply of trained housing law lawyers + volunteers. In eviction prevention, pro bono lawyers can help with:

  • Emergency rental assistance program (ERAP) navigation: Assisting people in filling out ERAP and following up with issues
  • Eviction defense: Giving brief advice or full representation to people sued for eviction
  • Writing letters to landlords: Helping tenants write an official letter, with the lawyers’ letterhead, in response to an eviction lawsuit, problems with harassment or intimidation, or bad living conditions
  • Activating courts to provide eviction diversion: Calling, meeting with, and pressuring court officials to open up Eviction Diversion programs, staffing/running them, working on court rules changes
  • Mediation and settlements: To allow for more agreements between landlords and tenants

If your organization needs help from pro bono attorneys, especially with ERAP, you can sign up to receive help at this form.

  • Massachusetts’ online training to volunteer in their Lawyer for the Day clinics

What legal technology can help tenants with their housing problems? What can renters use to document living conditions, gather evidence, and correspond with landlords?

Tech to correspond with navigators and lawyers

Text message hotlines, websites, and other tools can be used to let people easily reach out for help, get reminders, and get connect with a professional.

  • JustFix.nyc tech tools for tenants, that provide people with the ability to record problems with their living conditions, write official letters to their landlord, prepare evidence for court hearings, and connect with other tenants who are dealing with similar issues/landlords
  • Dear Landlord (Australia) and Hello Landlord (US) – for tenants to write formal legal letters about problems, and to create a trail of evidence that can be useful in future court actions

Tech to prepare court documents and strategies

Tech to help tenants (and advocates) prepare court filings, answers to eviction lawsuits, legal strategies on defenses to use, and scripts to use at hearings

  • MADE self help for eviction in Boston, that lets tenants
  • Arizona Eviction Self Help website (Pima County, Arizona), that walks tenants facing eviction through their possible defenses, options, and scripts they can use to communicate their issues

Tech to educate and navigate procedure

Tech to train tenants and landlords on their rights, and how to represent themselves in a legal proceeding

  • Represent online simulation game for self-represented tenants (Northeastern University and local legal aid groups in New England), that prepares tenants for what to expect at housing court 
  • Rentervention chatbot (Chicago), that lets tenants chat with an interactive, pre-programmed system to learn their rights and legal options based on their scenario

Case studies of legal services to prevent evictions

Eviction Court Summons from Montana

When a person is sued for eviction, how are they notified? A court summons is a crucial document to let them know about the lawsuit, help them connect with services, and get them prepared for important hearings and deadlines. This court summons was designed to be more user-friendly & accessible.

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How can text messages help prevent evictions?

By Sarah Verschoor, originally published on Legal Design & Innovation During many evictions, tenants & service providers face a troubling paradox. Just when a tenant is most at risk of eviction — and most in need of legal, financial, and housing services — this is when it is most difficult for service-providers to engage with them. When people are behind on their rent or worried about their landlord suing them, it’s often very difficult to reach them. The Stanford Legal Design Lab led a team of students in January 2022 to interview tenants about their eviction experiences across the US….

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Eviction Notice design from Las Vegas

How can courts and legal actors warn a tenant about a possible eviction –so that they take action, connect with services, and avoid a forcible move? This new warning notice from Las Vegas is one example of a strategic, simplified design.

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Housing Court Service Design in Indiana

Samira Nazem at National Center for State Court highlighted some innovations at local courts in Lawrence Township, Indiana in Marion County. They have worked to create more visual, supportive guides throughout the in-person court process for tenants and landlords looking for help. These DIY efforts are cost-effective but impactful, because they provide user-friendly signposts and support to a person through a stressful and intimidating journey through court Service Design through a Day in Housing Court These DIY efforts at the Indiana courthouse provide a service design of support for a person facing an eviction. The service design provides…

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Eviction Intervention in the court house in Fort Wayne

A unique partnership in the Indiana town of Fort Wayne has created an in-court eviction prevention service to reach more tenants and landlords before they go to trial, with services and guidance that can help them come to a resolution and get financial help without going to court.

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Qualified Tenant Advocates to represent tenants in courts

The Delaware Supreme Court established a new policy that allows non-lawyers — in this case, approved Qualified Tenant Advocates — to represent tenants in eviction court. This is only for residential tenants (not commercial ones). Usually, only licensed lawyers are allowed to represent tenants in the Delaware eviction courts, called Justice of the Peace Court. Landlords could be permitted to be represented by licensed advocates (non-lawyers) as well. Delaware is going to provide Qualified Tenant Advocates for free to tenants. These advocates will be trained by legal aid lawyers. See this information from Delaware Public Media: The advocate…

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Data tracking evictions in Milwaukee

The Track Milwaukee Evictions website has gathered data about local eviction filings, court outcomes, neighborhood risk, and housing code violations. They present the data fields & visualizations to show how the eviction system works locally — and who is most at risk.

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Online court mediation & services in Monroe County, Indiana

The Housing & Eviction Prevention Project (HEPP) in Indiana provides free legal, mediation, and social services to court. It includes integration into the court process, so once people are facing an eviction trial, they may be linked to services that can help them resolve their problem out of court.

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Michigan eviction court procedure reforms

The Michigan state courts have created new court rules that help to slow down eviction cases, direct more landlords and tenants to rent assistance, and encourage the court to help the parties to resolve their dispute without going to trial.

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Housing Justice Project in Nebraska

The program provides assistance to low-income individuals with housing problems. Assistance includes, information, referrals, advice, self-help services and limited assistance and representation to qualifying low-income individuals with legal problems that fit within their housing priority.

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NYC Housing Court Navigators

The New York City Housing Courts has a navigator program to support and assist unrepresented litigants – people who do not have an attorney – during their court appearances in landlord-tenant and consumer debt cases.

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COVID-19 Eviction Forms

How can a person get protected under the national eviction moratorium during COVID-19? They need to fill in a Declaration document, as well as making sure they fit the requirements the CDC has laid out. This online tool, COVID-19 Eviction Forms, leads people through this Declaration drafting.

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Eviction Diversion Program in Pinellas County, Florida

Renters and landlords in Pinellas County, Florida are eligible for a COVID-19 Eviction Diversion Program to help them reach a mutual agreement, pay back-rent, get help with stable housing and financial assistance, and navigate social services. It is run by the Community Law Program in the county.

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Eviction Legal Help FAQ site for COVID-19 renters’ rights

The national eviction help and renters’ rights FAQ site coordinates plain-language explanations of emergency COVID-19 protections for renters. It also presents them with local legal and financial assistance they can use.
Can I be evicted? What if I can’t pay my rent because of COVID? Who can help me cover my housing costs? This FAQ site is designed to get these local answers featured more prominently on search engines and elsewhere online.

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Eviction Diversion Program in Jackson County, MI

Jackson County, Michigan has an Eviction Diversion Program that lets tenants opt into the program, have mediation, legal services, and emergency assistance if they qualify. The goal is to help deal with underlying issues in the landlord-tenant relationship, and the holistic set of problems the tenant is dealing with.

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Eviction Cost Calculator

The I4J Lab at University of Arizona has created a Cost of Eviction Calculator. This tool can help policy-makers, service-providers, and others to determine what the financial cost of an eviction is to their community.

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Right to Counsel in NYC

NYC’s Right to Counsel program provides free full-representation lawyers to tenants who live in eligible zip codes, and who are income-eligible. It is run by the city government’s Office of Civil Justice, in partnership with the NYC Housing Courts, local legal aid groups, and the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

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Online Legal Self-Help in Boston

MADE is an online tool to let tenants produce eviction pleadings if they are facing a lawsuit. It helps replace a 4 hour clinic that a legal aid group runs to help tenants respond to evictions.

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Eviction Diversion Program in Durham, NC

This program provides individuals facing eviction with free advice and support, ranging from emergency financial aid to legal council, with the goal of helping citizens avoid eviction judgements and decreasing the number of eviction filings and verdicts in Durham County.

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Eviction Diversion Program in Richmond, VA

The Eviction Diversion program provides tenants who have received an unlawful detainer (and satisfy other eligibility criteria) with the opportunity (if their landlord agrees) to enter a voluntary conciliation procedure and to receive financial literacy education and financial assistance, as opposed to going through the court eviction process.

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Eviction Emergency Measures

These innovations focus on how to respond to special circumstances like a natural disaster, public health emergency, or financial crisis that has particular effects on renters — and that threaten to worsen the rates and outcomes of evictions.