The Atlanta City Council on Tuesday approved a $500,000 grant to the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) to expand its free legal services for people facing eviction.

The funding will support an AVLF pilot partnership with the Atlanta Public Defender’s Office to supply free lawyers to Atlanta renters who can’t afford one in eviction cases. City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari, who wrote the legislation, told Atlanta Civic Circle that the city council hopes to secure another $500,000 in matching funds from philanthropies.

“I’m launching a capital campaign,” Bakhtiari said, adding that they’ll lobby for similar city funding for AVLF in next year’s annual budget if the access-to-counsel program is successful in keeping people housed. 

In almost all eviction cases, landlords come to court with attorneys, but renters at risk of being kicked out rarely do, placing them at a huge disadvantage. Less than 2% of Fulton County tenants facing an eviction proceeding have a lawyer, according to AVLF’s eviction defense program. The group serves Fulton County residents.

AVLF executive director Michael Lucas told Atlanta Civic Circle that the new funding for eviction defense lawyers will help keep people housed amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has squeezed wallets and jeopardized many people’s housing stability. Landlords have filed about 41,000 eviction cases in Fulton County since the pandemic started, according to the city council resolution.  

“Our eviction crisis harms individuals, families, schools, neighborhoods, and our community as a whole,” Lucas said. “This pilot represents an important first step towards reducing that harm and creating a more safe and stable Atlanta.”

“This legislation is going to save lives,” Bakhtiari said, adding that the city of Atlanta funding to provide lawyers for tenants facing eviction is the first of its kind in the South. 

Several cities, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Baltimore already have access-to-counsel programs that provide lawyers to lower-income residents, giving them a fighting chance against an eviction filing in court.

The $500,000 grant provides crucial funding to support an ordinance the city council passed in December that authorizes the Atlanta Public Defender’s office to partner with or donate money and services to legal nonprofits that handle eviction defense.

When the program takes effect it won’t focus on Bakhtiari’s more affluent district, which encompasses parts of fast-developing neighborhoods like Grant Park, Reynoldstown, and Kirkwood.

“This is going to be able to help our hardest-hit communities,” they said. “This is going to go to areas in the southwest and the Westside—areas with the highest eviction rates right now.”

The $500,000 grant—plus the anticipated philanthropic match—will allow AVLF to staff an eviction defense program that works directly with the public defender’s office, Bakhtiari said. 

The new grant program will also supply funding so AVLF can work with “organizations like Housing Justice League to get out and door-knock and reach out to folks who might be getting hit by this [eviction crisis] to preemptively assist them,” they continued, “because we know that when evictions finally come for us, it’s typically too late.”

People facing eviction can contact AVLF for assistance.

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