By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
For over a year, tenants have been spared of eviction due to the national eviction moratorium in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The moratorium is set to end on Saturday, July 31 and when it does, eviction filings are expected to increase.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signed the “Right to Counsel Milwaukee” into law during a press conference on Monday, July 19. Under “Right to Counsel,” residents facing eviction or foreclosure will be provided with a free legal representative.
“I’m proud to sign the ‘Right to Counsel’ legislation into law and take another important step forward in increasing housing security for Milwaukee County residents as we continue our recovery from the economic downturn caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic,” Crowley said in a press release.
He continued, “Eviction curtails access to safe, affordable housing from reputable landlords and perpetuates the cycle of poverty for generations. ‘Right to Counsel’ provides an additional resource for residents to maintain housing security and avoid the negative impacts of eviction.”
“Right to Counsel” is a pilot program in partnership with United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties and the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and the initial running will last six months. The program is expected to launch on Wednesday, Sept. 1.
Eligible tenants are considered families with minor children. The program consists of 12 attorneys who specialize in housing law.
Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy authored “Right to Counsel.”
“We will be the first county in the United States to not only declare the right to shelter but then to fund it,” Clancy said during the press conference.
The ripple effects of “Right to Counsel” are broad and far reaching, Clancy said. The program will help keep a roof over people’s heads, but it could also increase the likelihood of them keeping their jobs, that their children do better in school and that it could lower their lead levels.
The Milwaukee Eviction Defense Project found that 90% of eviction cases were dismissed or delayed if a tenant had legal representation, but that only 3% of Milwaukee families have legal representation.
Data from the Milwaukee County Small Claims Court shows that Black and Latino residents in low-income areas are the most at risk for eviction, according to the press release. Furthermore the press release said, “The 10 neighborhoods with the highest eviction rates are 73% African American with a 40% poverty rate.”
“‘Right to Counsel’ is a huge step in changing eviction culture in our city and in our county,” Colleen Foley, the executive director of Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, said. “I can tell you that Legal Aid and our partners are working swiftly and decisively to make this dream a reality.”
Deedee Peterson is the executive director of Legal Action of Wisconsin. She explained that through this program, organizations such as Legal Aid and Legal Action will have a greater bandwidth to serve people seeking legal assistance.
“When a long-time tenant has a lawyer, they are far more likely to avoid eviction and get what we like to call housing stability, which is nothing more than a safe, decent, affordable home,” she said.