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WA First to Guarantee Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases

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With the threats of evictions rising as the pandemic eases, Washington state took a major step this year to protect tenants.

In the 2021 session, state lawmakers passed a measure guaranteeing tenants have a right to legal counsel in eviction cases. It was the first state in the nation to pass such a bill.

John Pollock, coordinator at the National Coalition for A Civil Right to Counsel called it transformative.

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“The movement has been very successful in the last five years at the municipal level,” said Pollock. “But Washington state was the first one to show that it could be done at the state level as well.”

Pollock said Connecticut and Maryland joined Washington shortly after this bill passed and notes that at least 11 states have introduced similar legislation, signaling how mainstream this issue has become.

Gov. Jay Inslee says the state will extend the eviction moratorium beyond Wednesday.

Pollock said only about 3% of tenants have legal representation in eviction cases. He also noted that for the person who might be evicted, there is much more at stake than their homes.

“Child care, child custody, your physical liberty, your health, your employment and so on,” said Pollock. “Counsel makes a huge difference from the studies that we’ve seen. It literally changes what happens in housing court and the vast majority of tenants avoid eviction or the serious consequences.”

Pollock said it can be hard for people to rent once they have an eviction on their record. He also noted that this is a significant race-equity issue, with Black women facing eviction rates at least twice as high as white people.

“In a country where we’re wrestling with race equity and looking at what it looks like or what it should look like,” said Pollock, “we cannot ignore the plight and the situation in our housing courts, which are a reflection of the lack of that kind of equity.”

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