Legal Aid is Key to Preventing Evictions

When Bernard returned home last fall after a brief hospital stay, he was blindsided by an eviction notice. Fifty-eight years old and single, he had stopped working as a construction laborer after a fall had left him with severe back pain and an addiction to prescription pain killers. By the time he had gotten himself clean, Bernard was behind on the rent of his one-bedroom apartment. He was also dealing with anxiety and depression.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Bernard, who says he does not have much family support. “I was hurt, I was scared. I had a lot of emotions at one time to deal with.”

Without a lawyer, eviction proceedings can be hard to navigate. One study found that two-thirds of tenants who had a legal aid attorney were able to stay in their homes, compared with a third of tenants who represented themselves in housing court.

Bernard didn’t lose his home. Instead, he got help from De Novo’s Homelessness Prevention Project, which provides free legal assistance to help people with low incomes retain safe and affordable housing. The idea is that tenants with attorneys have a better chance of reaching agreements with landlords to stay in their homes - and they avoid having an eviction on their record, which makes it harder to find another place to live. The Project focuses on tenants who are facing imminent homelessness or who have mental health conditions, like Bernard, that affect their ability to navigate the legal process.

For years Bernard had been in and out of work due to his physical and emotional challenges, and his affordable public housing unit provided stability. But as Bernard’s addiction-induced insomnia and night terrors worsened, so did his relationships with neighbors and his landlord. He would frequently yell out at nighttime and disturb other tenants.

De Novo’s housing attorney helped Bernard negotiate a rent repayment plan, as well as reasonable accommodations for his noise related lease violations. The Project connected Bernard to food assistance and job training, and referred him to a local partner for substance abuse treatment. With the threat of eviction now behind him, Bernard has a secure home and is able to focus on his recovery.

* Identifying details have been changed to protect client privacy

Amanda Becker