The Atlanta City Council last month approved a measure that paves the way for the city’s public defender office to help prevent evictions, but without proper funding, it’s not enough to prevent the displacement of many city residents affected by the pandemic.
The ordinance, authored by City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond, authorizes the Atlanta Public Defender’s Office, which represents people facing criminal charges, to partner with and donate money or services to legal nonprofits that handle eviction defense–but how that would work remains unclear.
Michael Lucas, the executive director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), one of the legal aid groups that the city’s public defender office could assist, said the ordinance doesn’t go far enough, because there is no financial backing behind the measure.
“Without significant funding being dedicated to the provision of legal representation to Atlanta tenants,” he said, “it accomplishes very little.”
“Cities that have actually done something meaningful around access to counsel have put their money — significant funding — where their mouth is,” Lucas told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Lindsey Siegel, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid, said the ordinance shows city officials “obviously recognize that evictions are reaching a crisis level.” But, like Lucas, she told Atlanta Civic Circle the measure could go further.
“By pairing the ordinance with dedicated funding for tenant lawyers, city leaders could help right the imbalance that exists when one side is almost always represented and the other is not,” Siegel said.
This isn’t the first piece of legislation approved by the city council that allows city resources to be used for eviction prevention. Councilmember Matt Westmoreland pushed through an ordinance last year that allocated $20,000 in municipal funds to AVLF and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, which also provides free legal help to low-income people.
Both legal aid groups said they have not yet been contacted by the city public defender’s office about eviction defense.
As of last fall, about 41,000 evictions had been filed in Fulton County since the COVID-19 pandemic started, according to the new city ordinance, which adds that Fulton has one of the highest eviction rates in the country, with about 800 tenants receiving an eviction notice each week.
New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Baltimore are cities whose public defender offices have established “right to counsel” programs to provide lawyers for low-income people in eviction proceedings, the ordinance says.
New York was the first city in the country to enact a law “to commit to make legal services available to all tenants facing eviction proceedings in housing court and public housing authority of termination,” per NYC Human Resources Administration materials.
Equipping low-income tenants with lawyers in eviction proceedings helps keep them in their homes. According to the National League of Cities, “a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction is effective, ensures the use and enforcement of other interventions, such as rent assistance and eviction moratoria, and addresses starkly uneven power dynamics and longstanding racial disparities.”
“In New York, 86% of represented tenants remain in their homes,” an NLC report says. “In San Francisco, 67% do. And in Cleveland, 93% of represented tenants are avoiding eviction or an involuntary move.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens recently renewed an executive order issued by his predecessor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, that bars landlords managing city-funded properties from evicting renters, but that measure protects only about 28,500 tenants — a fraction of those at risk of displacement.