If folks facing criminal charges are afforded legal representation by the government, shouldn’t people at risk of eviction be extended the same privilege? Some public officials and legal professionals in metro Atlanta think so.

Earlier this month, Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond introduced legislation that seeks to provide public defenders to tenants facing dispossessory claims in the Fulton County Magistrate Court. DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry thinks something similar could help his constituents on the cusp of displacement.

Whether such a system is feasible in the metro area, though, is another question. 

Bond’s proposal mimics the City and County of San Francisco’s No Eviction without Representation Act, although with metro Atlanta’s mishmash of jurisdictions, replicating the West Coast system could be tricky, according to Steve Gottlieb, executive director of Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

The ordinance Bond pitched would create an “Eviction Defense Division” within the city’s public defender’s office, which would “be authorized to provide community-oriented civil legal services, including immigration defense and eviction defense to indigent City of Atlanta residents,” according to the legislation. 

Municipal courts here don’t deal with landlord-tenant cases, though, Gottlieb said; that’s a county responsibility. And while the proposal, as written, would authorize the eviction defense team to operate in the Fulton County Magistrate Court “and any other related courts of appeals related to eviction cases,” the City of Atlanta’s legal department must make sure it doesn’t violate state law, according to a report by Axios

The publication noted that the ordinance proposal “was put on hold when the city’s Department of Law questioned if the Georgia Constitution allows Atlanta to provide residents professional services ‘that have a monetary value to private individuals,’ a violation of the Gratuities Clause.” 

For now, Bond’s proposal sits with the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee, although he said he expects updated language to be hashed out during next month’s committee meeting. 

Still, Gottlieb said, finding ways to link tenants with lawyers is crucial. In most cases, he told Atlanta Civic Circle, only the landlord brings legal representation to court. He said when renters have attorneys in their corner, the difference in case outcomes is like “night and day.”

“There are technical defenses; there are substantive defenses that tenants don’t know about,” Gottlieb said. That knowledge can help keep people in their homes. 

Many renters assume they’re out of luck because they’re facing eviction due to nonpayment of rent, Gottlieb explained. Atlanta Legal Aid lawyers, however, can enlighten them to defense strategies — perhaps a landlord has failed to uphold their end of the lease, for instance. Lawyers can also help tenants negotiate agreements with landlords or direct them toward federal Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) and other public resources. 

Gottlieb’s team has even argued in court that people living in an extended-stay hotel were not technically guests but, in fact, full-time residents — a move that has, so far, prevented some of them from being evicted. 

Commissioner Terry, too, said it only makes sense that, if people involved in criminal cases are provided legal representation, those in civil cases should be as well. 

“There’s an equity issue,” he said. “The majority of individuals that are in eviction cases are lower-income and they’re also African American or non-white. San Francisco’s case showed they could actually prevent a substantial number of evictions just by having legal representation.”

Additionally, Terry pointed out, federal officials have encouraged public agencies to use some of their ERA and American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to provide tenants with counsel. 

“Tenants are more likely to avoid eviction and remain stably housed when they have access to legal representation,” said a letter from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge to state and local leaders. “Legal counsel can also aid in the successful completion of ERA applications.”

So what would it take to implement some sort of public defender program for landlord-tenant cases in DeKalb County? 

“It takes a willing partner, like Atlanta Legal Aid or the DeKalb Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, and then it takes money,” Terry said, nodding to the ERA cash the county received. 

And because public agencies have until the end of 2026 to spend these emergency funds, he added, “We could create a fair eviction court process for the next four or five years.”

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