Charlottesville City Council debates right to counsel funding for tenants facing eviction

Charlottesville City Council debates Right to Counsel funding for tenants facing eviction

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Charlottesville City Council is considering a new budget item that would guarantee more tenants have access to lawyers in eviction cases.

Advocates say what’s being considered is not close to enough to solve the problem for good. The proposal would make Charlottesville the first city in Virginia to extend the right to counsel in eviction hearings – and just the eighth across the country.

With the federal moratorium set to end this summer, Charlottesville is bracing for a potential tsunami of evictions. As the pandemic continues, organizers like Shantell Bingham say it’s critical to fix a current and longstanding problem.

“Most people don’t show up to those hearings, and that’s incredibly important,” Bingham explained. “People didn’t know what they could do and what tools they had to be able to fight this. Even if they do have tools in their toolbox, ‘I’m not a lawyer, right?’ It’s hard to be in a courtroom. Someone even just being there with you in that court space is is really, really important.”

City Council is debating allocating $117,000 to the initiative. However, advocates say it’s a good first step but falls well short of making sure everyone that needs help is represented.

”That would cover something like one-third of all tenants who face eviction in Charlottesville each year,” Community Organizer Jake Gold said. “We don’t afford rights to just a third of the people who are guaranteed them, we afford rights to every single tenant.”

There are around 700 evictions a year in Charlottesville, and advocates estimate 300 cases a year would need representation based on court observation. The city’s proposal would only fund representation for around 100, they say. Advocates estimate around $460,000 would pay for attorneys to represent all the tenants that can’t afford their own, and someone to do community outreach.

Eviction outreach work, so far, has been taken up unofficially by the Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America.

“Having somebody that can reach out and make that initial contact and let people know, that they have right to counsel and that they have rights in court is the first step,” Charlottesville DSA Member Brian Campbell explained. “Nothing can proceed without that step.”

If the city takes action, it would be the first in Virginia to guarantee right to counsel for eviction cases. Advocates say it could be a model not just to the state, but to the rest of the country. If Charlottesville’s system is successful, Gold says it could inspire a future pilot program at the state level.

“If we want to do this in a state as big and diverse as Virginia, if we want to make sure that we can get attorneys out in southwest Virginia and on the eastern shore, in order to staff areas and make sure that we’re doing this right, that starts with local implementation,” Gold said.

It’s a move that supporters say is long overdue, and strikes at the heart of Charlottesville’s stated commitment to equality.

“If we’re really committed to being a city that is just an equitable, then then this needs to happen,” Human Rights Commission Chair Mary Bauer explained. “We know that it’s happened in much bigger cities, that where the costs are, you know, millions and millions of dollars, but we’re a small city. We could do this.”

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