For tenants facing eviction — one of the most common lawsuits in the state of Missouri — having legal representation can mean avoiding homelessness.
The rate of eviction filings has returned to or exceeded pre-pandemic levels in many cities across the nation, according to data from Eviction Lab, a Princeton University initiative to contextualize the eviction crisis with data.
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (Legal Services) works to provide legal support in housing and eviction cases for low-income tenants, the elderly, those with disabilities and more. Susan M. Alverson, managing attorney for Legal Services’s housing law program, said Legal Services has been providing eviction defense for decades.
Alverson says eviction defense is one of the major areas of housing law and the most common type of lawsuit in the state is an eviction lawsuit for alleged unpaid rent. Rose Tanner, an associate with Thompson Coburn who has worked with Legal Services on housing and eviction cases since 2019, says a tenant could be withholding rent because they need financial assistance or because their home is in a condition that is not habitable.
“We are usually just asking for more time,” Tanner explained when referring to the legal process once an attorney is involved. “If the client didn’t have an attorney appear on their behalf, they could be immediately faced with eviction, meaning they have about 10 days to get out.”
Tanner says it can be difficult for tenants to receive a favorable outcome in eviction judgements without counsel.
Consent judgments are offered if a tenant is not represented, she said, which, if signed, often makes it harder for tenants to successfully find future housing since it negatively impacts their rental history. She also says even showing up to court may be difficult for tenants due to jobs and a general lack of understanding of the legal process.
“If the tenant doesn’t show up to the hearing, that’s an automatic judgment against them and they will be evicted,” she said. “So, at the most basic level, tenants need an attorney, social worker, transportation to court and job protection for the day they take off to go to court to succeed in rent and possession cases.”
In July, St. Louis became the 22nd right-to-counsel jurisdiction in the country by enacting an ordinance that provides a right to counsel for all tenants facing eviction. The program will be implemented by July 1, 2024, and will help tenants better understand court processes and their defenses. Alverson said Legal Services will be involved in the program and hopes it will “level the playing field.”
“I try to represent as many folks as I can, and my goal is to help them out and represent them as zealously as I can,” she said.
Despite the available resources offered by organizations such as Legal Services, evictions are a part of a larger problem. A factor in the staggering number of evictions each year is a general lack of affordable housing, Alverson says.
“Ultimately, where everything comes down is the policymakers,” Alverson said. “We as a society have not built enough affordable housing, habitable housing. The area of housing and rental properties has more and more turned over to big, out-of-state landlords.”
Despite large-scale changes needing to be made, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri can make housing law more equitable by taking on these cases.
“Anytime a tenant is represented by a lawyer, they get a better outcome,” Alverson said. “Every time.”
Paul Krispin, a solo practitioner who has volunteered on housing cases for Legal Services, said taking on those cases is a fast and impactful way to make a difference.
“For me, these are cases that don’t take a long time to complete but for the client, they’re incredibly important because it’s such a basic need,” Krispin said. “I feel like it’s a way to help.”
Tanner said since she started working on housing and eviction cases, she can’t recall a single client who was evicted.
“There was never an instance, as far as I know, of one of the clients being thrown out onto the streets,” she said.
Tanner says working on pro bono housing cases has had an impact on her.
“It’s very rewarding to actually see that my work is helping an individual person in a huge way in their personal lives,” she said. “It’s a lot more meaningful and makes me feel good about the work I’m doing.”
Krispin concurred and said Legal Services helps lawyers give back to their communities.
“All lawyers want to do stuff from time to time to help the community and Legal Services (of Eastern Missouri) really does facilitate the representation,” he said. “They’re a really great resource not only for putting the client and attorney together, but also helping facilitate the representation.”
For tenants who have representation, Alverson said they are either able to win cases or obtain settlements that benefit the client. Nevertheless, the demand can outweigh the resources.
“The minute we get involved, we get a better outcome than that person would have by trying to represent themselves,” Alverson said. “We need more lawyers, and that’s the value of doing pro bono housing work.”
If you are an attorney who is interested in volunteering with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri to help tenants facing eviction, please visit https://Legal Services.org/volunteer/