Socialists Are Winning Right-to-Counsel Tenant Protections Across the US

Democratic socialists and allies in Jersey City, New Jersey, just helped pass an ordinance guaranteeing tenants a right to legal representation in eviction cases. It’s the latest in a series of similar victories across the country.

Housing activists protesting the end of eviction moratoriums in New York City, 2022. (Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

As the afterwork sun set on April 12, a group of about sixty people descended into Jersey City City Hall, ready to spend nearly five hours in the chamber to support two housing-related ordinances. Forgoing an evening of balmy weather was a small price to pay to make their voices heard in the fight against baseless evictions, illegal rent hikes, and major tax breaks for corporate real estate companies.

In Jersey City, New Jersey, now reported to be the most expensive US city for renters and a microcosm of broader housing issues faced by renters around the country, organizers are aiming to empower tenants through institutional protections like right to counsel (RTC).

RTC guarantees tenants will have legal representation in housing court provided to them in cases involving eviction, landlord malfeasance, or habitability concerns. Nationwide, only 3 percent of tenants facing eviction are represented in court, whereas about 80 percent of landlords have legal counsel. Tenants are left defenseless while landlords are incentivized to squeeze all they can by raising rents and ignoring housing codes — the latter of which leads to horrific situations like the fatal fire that occurred in a former Bronx public housing complex bought by a private company in 2021.

At the same time, city governments have neglected affordable housing while development companies construct more massive luxury buildings inaccessible to longtime residents. Rapid gentrification is making cities hostile to everyday renters, worsening an already brutal eviction crisis.

In this context, housing justice movements seem to be having a renaissance, and organizers with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have taken on right-to-counsel campaigns. Ensuring that tenants in housing court are provided with attorneys shifts the balance of power toward renters who would otherwise be at the mercy of volatile rental markets and capricious property owners.

An Early Victory for San Francisco DSA

In San Francisco in 2018, the local DSA chapter helped pass Proposition F, which established a universal right to counsel funded by the city budget. At the start of the pandemic, city eviction rates plunged because of existing safeguards like RTC. Jen Snyder, former campaign manager for the Prop F campaign and a member of the San Francisco DSA chapter, said that the blow of the pandemic to renters was less severe because the right-to-counsel campaign helped inform people of their rights.

“When the pandemic started, we had this massive network already created of people who were in touch with renters constantly. If you’re getting an eviction notice, you’re supposed to also get a notice that you get a free attorney,” Snyder said.

At the time, San Francisco DSA had been looking for a political strategy to spread a socialist message on housing rights. Matt McGowan, then on the chapter’s steering committee, described the campaign as essential for the chapter’s development, especially because the measure was passed through a ballot initiative.

“A [ballot measure] is a really great way for a DSA chapter to stake out a really strong, independent position on an issue,” McGowan said. “If you have the capacity and really plan it out, you can develop leaders and activate your membership list.”

In California, ballot initiatives have served as battlegrounds for key issues. Residents regularly make use of this more “direct” democratic instrument because of the structure of California law — for instance, a general tax cannot be passed in the state legislature and must receive an electoral majority to be approved.

Snyder said it was essential to make the policy universal and prevent bureaucratic red tape from restricting any renter from receiving service. “Landlords are less likely to file bogus evictions when they know everyone, not just a subset of people, are guaranteed representation.” Several studies have also established that universal programs function better than those that are means-tested, as time and resources can be spent on delivering benefits rather than on determining potential recipients’ eligibility.

The measure was written by now city supervisor Dean Preston, elected in 2019, who served as a housing attorney and head of the renters’ advocacy organization Tenants Together. Prior to his election, the right-to-counsel program languished for eighteen months. Public pressure and having its author on the “inside” helped push enforcement.

“After the initial six months of implementation, two out of three people provided representation were not evicted,” Preston said. “And when you break that down by race, 80 percent of African American residents facing eviction ended up with a resolution that allowed them to stay in their homes.”

Right to Counsel Across the Country

Inspired by San Francisco, a coalition lead by the Boulder, Colorado, chapter of DSA and including groups like 9 to 5 Colorado and Bedrooms Are for People was already rallying around the No Eviction Without Representation (NEWR) initiative when pandemic-related housing insecurity was making the news in 2020. Like in many growing cities, residents are seeing greater speculative investment in real estate and higher rents.

A close-knit group of coalition partners and tenant organizers spent two years building the campaign. “Before the campaign, there really wasn’t any data recorded in Boulder about eviction, so no one knew the scope and scale of the problem,” Ruy Arango, former chair of the NEWR, said. “We spent about a year going to eviction court and recording what we observed.”

Their work refining their messaging against possible opposition paid off, with Boulder passing the ballot initiative in November 2020. Boulder’s NEWR also included money for rental assistance, which — while its fundamental importance is to help struggling tenants make ends meet — may help placate landlords who also end up benefiting.

Besides providing tenants with more power in setting the terms of their living conditions, right-to-counsel protections also help people facing eviction avoid potentially dangerous encounters with law enforcement.

“It was important for us to make the link between right to counsel and abolition as it helps reduce public contact with the police,” said Stephen Poland, New Haven DSA branch representative and founder of the chapter’s Housing Justice Project. Sarah White, an attorney with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, added, “In Connecticut, landlords often use marshals to enforce evictions, and, of course, when someone loses their home that puts them at risk of more brutality and criminalization.”

As opposed to adoption via ballot initiative, in Connecticut activists successfully pressured the state legislature into passing a right-to-counsel ordinance. But the campaign still involved a great deal of fieldwork, including canvassing, phone banks, and attending public meetings en masse, as well as media. Like in many places that have implemented legal representation services, organizers are now working to ensure reliable funding for the measure.

Organizers with the New York City DSA chapter are still pushing for full funding following the 2017 expansion of the existing low-income tenant right to counsel. “Right now, the Housing Justice Working Group is working to integrate right to counsel with tenant organizing. . . . It’s important for us to understand existing legal frameworks we are currently under in our fight for decommodifying housing,” explained Daeha Ko of NYC-DSA’s Housing Justice Working Group.

Ko described New York’s housing courts as “eviction machines.” Activity around the right to counsel coincides with recent statewide efforts to push for good cause eviction that would have mandated that landlords can only file eviction notices or refuse to renew a tenant’s lease for specific reasons. New York City activists and organizers are preparing for a large series of actions in Brooklyn and Bronx housing courts.

“We’re interested in how public dollars and resources are spent,” said Katy Lasell, campaign coordinator for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, which also includes AARP, the Legal Aid Society, and neighborhood tenants unions. “The courts have often been used as a publicly funded tool of the landlord class. It’s important to maintain our presence in the courts and provide political education on how these systems work.”

Making housing court or the levers that determine housing conditions organizing targets is nothing new: in Jersey City prior to the right-to-counsel campaign, tenants in downtown’s Portside Towers fought the city’s Office of Landlord/Tenant Relations for not enforcing a rent control ordinance. In New York City, tenant groups sued the rent control board in 2008 for authorizing a supplemental rent increase for long-time tenants. In many cases, laws protecting tenants are already on the books, but the enforcement mechanisms for those laws are insufficient.

Despite the limitations of New York’s current right-to-counsel program, the positive impacts speak for themselves. In 84 percent of cases where tenants had representation, they were able to stay in their homes when facing eviction. Evictions have been reduced by 30 percent since implementation.

Jersey City’s recently approved RTC ordinance, developed and drafted by members of North New Jersey DSA’s Hudson County Branch and eventually sponsored by three councilmembers, will establish an office in the city government that will not only administer the right to counsel but also connect tenants with rental payment programs. Now that the measure has been approved, campaign members and volunteers hope to organize around increasing funding, staffing the office’s Tenant Advisory Board with organizers, and building up tenant unions and associations across the city.

DSA organizers acknowledge that right to counsel and providing tenants with lawyers will not be enough to solve the housing crisis, but it is an example of a campaign that challenges what is possible within existing systems and tries to shift the balance of power between tenants and landlords. Policies like RTC provide measurable support to those facing the burdens of a deeply inequitable housing system while offering opportunities to point out that housing should not be a commodity or a speculative asset, but a human right.

The campaigns also illustrate that organizers should not back down when it comes to bringing radical demands to the table. Seemingly “pie-in-the-sky” ideas like a universal guarantee of legal representation are supported by people most impacted by housing insecurity, helping advocates overpower pushback from bad-faith actors like real estate lobbyists. Especially in legislative campaigns, even progressive activists and legislators may agree to concessions to pass a new program. Having a network of organized tenants to push back against this can help ensure that legislation is not watered down.

Jake Ephros, cochair of the Right to Counsel Jersey City Campaign, wrote previously in Jacobin, “Capital’s entrenched political machine in Jersey City, in Hudson County, and in all of New Jersey makes truly insurgent campaigns particularly difficult. But the stakes are too high to sit idly by, and the conditions for transformative housing justice are clearly present.”

As cities and states deal with the impact of lifting pandemic-era eviction moratoriums, tenants who are unable to obtain legal services or emergency rental aid are more vulnerable than ever. The problem is not one or two lousy landlords, but the structural injustices created by a for-profit housing system. With right-to-counsel campaigns, organizations like DSA are showing how reforms to help tenants in the here and now can be part of building a movement for deeper, more transformative change.