Council OKs right to free lawyer for people facing eviction

March 30, 2021 GMT

SEATTLE (AP) — The Seattle City Council has voted to give free legal representation to renters facing eviction.

Advocates say the legislation is a small investment that will help people stay in their homes and forestall the more expensive consequences of homelessness, The Seattle Times reported.

It passed unanimously Monday with a notable change from Council President M. Lorena González making the offer available to tenants who are “indigent.”

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Indigent is broadly defined as someone unable to pay for a lawyer for the eviction proceeding. No documentation would be necessary, beyond the person signing a form saying they couldn’t afford a lawyer.

González said the change was necessary to ensure the law survives legal challenges and is in line with similar city policies, like the city’s legal defense fund for local immigrants facing deportation.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the measure’s lead sponsor, opposed the change, arguing any sort of income eligibility requirement was demeaning and would result in fewer people accessing the service.

González’s amendment passed 8-1.

Local studies have shown that the most common reason for eviction is lack of payment of rent, and that it’s often just a small debt. Having a lawyer, advocates say, can slow the process and help tenants access services like rental assistance.

At least seven other cities across the country already have “right-to-counsel” laws, providing lawyers for those facing eviction.

A bill working its way through the state Legislature in Olympia (Senate Bill 5160) would provide a right to counsel for people facing eviction statewide, and require landlords to offer repayment plans for those who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic.