Harris County is awarding $4 million to allow attorneys to help those facing eviction

When Colby Cummings arrived at her eviction hearing, she had barely slept. The rent reduction had not gone through, and the new eviction notice had made it difficult to get another apartment approved. She had sent her teenage son to her mother so he wouldn’t have to live with the fear of being kicked out.

But to her surprise, she was met by a Lone Star Legal Aid paralegal who offered to put her through a lawyer for free. This attorney acknowledged that Cummings’ request for rent reduction meant that her case should be put on hold for 60 days to give the request time to process. In the end, the extra time allowed her to find a new apartment before being evicted, and her rent reduction request was approved.

“If there are other people in the same situation as me,” Cummings said, “I absolutely hope they have the same level of access to get help.”

Dozens of organizations across Houston are arguing that the Cummings experience should be the tenant experience in any eviction action — and for nearly a year during the pandemic, they did. However, as funds became scarce for attorneys offering free on-site legal advice, attorneys were forced to choose which files they could participate in.

The Harris County Commissioner’s Court on Tuesday took steps to strengthen legal aid for evictions, awarding $4 million in contracts to two separate groups. The decision extended the availability of such services, but did not provide sufficient long-term funding to ensure any-date representation advocated by many Houston organizations.

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Lone Star Legal Aid, the nonprofit that worked with Cummings, has been awarded a $2.6 million contract that it will use in partnership with a group of legal aid organizations known as the Eviction Defense Coalition to provide free legal advice to offer.

The Commissioner’s Court also approved a $1.4 million contract with the Neighborhood Defender Service to provide legal services to those threatened with eviction. The nonprofit organization is currently staffing its Houston office.

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Cities create the right to free advice

While crime shows have popularized the idea that accused persons have a constitutional right to an attorney, this only applies in criminal courts. In most eviction lawsuits, only the landlord is represented by an attorney, meaning only one side has a professional understanding of their legal rights.

However, some jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Philadelphia, have enacted laws guaranteeing low-income renters facing eviction the right to an attorney. Five years after New York City instituted legal counsel, eviction requests dropped about 30 percent, according to the nonprofit Community Service Society for Social Justice.

In Harris County, the situation is more complicated. An ad hoc right to legal aid was stitched together by emergency orders guaranteeing legal aid’s access to courthouses and various organizations that fund the lawyers’ time.

An emergency order issued by the Texas Supreme Court in response to the pandemic requires judges to allow legal aid organizations to offer assistance in courthouses — at least until May 1. After that point, judges will have discretion whether to allow mutual legal assistance, unless the emergency injunction is extended to facilitate access to courthouses.

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And a series of grants, including previous Harris County funds, have kept attorneys spending their days providing eviction lawsuit services.

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Groups battle for reliable free legal advice in Harris County

More than 60 organizations from a variety of sectors — including study groups, community attorneys, teachers’ associations and environmental nonprofits — have signed a letter urging district commissioners to provide long-term support to local legal aid organizations, with a goal of providing free legal advice with every eviction file in the county.

They hope the Democratic majority in the Commissioner’s Court will approve an additional $20 million in funding, which they believe will allow tenants to have a lawyer for the next three years.

“We are incredibly grateful that Harris County is taking the eviction crisis seriously,” said Jay Malone, policy director for the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Foundation advocacy group, which signed the letter. “But this is just the beginning – we need funding to ensure all tenants have access to justice in our courts.”

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