Detroit, MI

Why Right to Counsel Detroit Is a Good Model for America

Aron Solomon

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Back in May, Detroit’s City Council unanimously passed the “Right to Counsel” ordinance. This is a program that will have the city pay for legal counsel for low-income Detroiters who face eviction, foreclosure, and legal issues related to their housing.

As WDET reported, of 30,000 eviction cases in Detroit, only around 1000 of those tenants had legal counsel.

What’s happening in Detroit is reflected on a national scale. All of our cities are now finding themselves in a spike of infection and related administrative filings. In Detroit, there were 6664 infections in 2016 and close to 30,000 per year between 2014 and 2018.

Detroit’s new program is groundbreaking because it takes into account a fundamental truth about the legal system: that it was not built to deal with these kinds of numbers.

There is no way that any city can be healthy, particularly a city the size of Detroit which is not the massive city that it used to be, with 30,000 evictions per year.

These kinds of programs also serve an important educational function. How many clients will be able to access services through the program and not actually need to be in a legal dispute with a landlord because of what they can learn? These kinds of programs excel at providing techniques earlier on in a tenancy which can sometimes help avoid evictions.

John Lawlor, a Florida lawyer, argues that Detroit’s model could work across the nation:

“The law is an interesting thing, in that better communication and education can be a path to more expedient and intelligent resolutions. By providing counsel for people who face eviction and foreclosure, cities across the country can help ensure more fairness in the system and a better understanding of how the legal process does and should work.”

This was precisely the goal of the Right to Counsel initiative in Detroit, which itself is part of a larger national movement seeking to replicate this Detroit-made success in other cities. This is critically important because of the dire need for programs such as this today.

According to the Detroit Future City think tank, the metrics for programs such as this are pretty remarkable. In Philadelphia, 78% of tenants were disruptively displaced without a lawyer. With a lawyer, only 5% of tenants were disruptively displaced. Similarly, In Minnesota, tenants who were represented by legal aid negotiated agreements to stay in the property 240% more often than tenants not represented. Tenants successfully negotiated an agreement to move and avoid eviction judgment 745% more often than tenants not represented by legal aid.

The most compelling figures come from a study by Stout for the Philadelphia Bar Association, which found that an investment of $3.5 million in eviction representation would save the city $45.2 million in shelter costs, health care costs and mental health costs, which they note is a return of $12 for every $1 invested in right to counsel programs. The results of Stout’s Philadelphia study were well-aligned with an earlier study they did on right to counsel programs in New York.

So why aren’t programs such as this much more common today? It’s because of the initial investment of capital required to start them. City governments have grown far too comfortable simply lamenting the end results of not investing in programs such as right to counsel rather than having the difficult discussions about where to find the cash to make it happen.

Other cities will surely be watching Detroit closely to measure the success of this program not only through inputs and outputs, but public sentiment. In other words, programs such as this are a great way to attract voters as we move closer to midterm elections.

About Aron Solomon

A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor of Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.

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Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital, who has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world.

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