Tenants are left on their own to navigate an evolving maze of federal and local directives that dictate when and how an eviction can occur, a legal landscape that has become infinitely more confusing during the COVID-19 pandemic, reports the Appeal. Local studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that a large majority of landlords have counsel in housing court, while a small minority of tenants have representation.
One of President Joe Biden’s first executive actions was to extend the federal moratorium on evictions to March 31. The moratorium, first imposed last spring, hasn’t completely halted evictions. Since the start of the pandemic, landlords have filed for more than 245,000 evictions in the five states and 27 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Black tenants are disproportionately affected by evictions, which makes a right to counsel a matter of racial justice, according to housing rights activists. In response to advocates’ demands, lawmakers in several states are sponsoring right-to-counsel legislation, from city councils to state legislatures.
Federal legislation to guarantee a right to counsel has not yet been introduced, but the stimulus bill that passed in December included $20 million to fund existing tenant representation programs.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that an ongoing lawsuit filed by tenants against a Virginia based law firm responsible for filing thousands of eviction notices for landlords underscores the complex legal and financial gears nudging tenants toward eviction while remaining inscrutable to most renters and shines a light on a high-volume business passing through certain firms, particularly as an estimated 880,000 Virginians now face eviction because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The firm, Senex Law, has been behind a considerable number of Virginia evictions, or “unlawful detainers.” In 2018, the Richmond Times-Dispatch analyzed 150,000 eviction filings from across the state for the previous year. The paper found that Senex had filed more than 20,000 eviction cases in 2017, or four times more than any other Virginia law firm. In the lawsuit filed last year, attorneys for tenants alleged that in 2020, Senex filed 3,891 eviction cases in 2020 up to September. Those numbers came despite federal and state eviction moratoriums.
With attorney’s fees laid out in the notices sent to Lord and others, the firm’s alleged 2020 caseload of eviction filings alone would add up to more than a quarter of a million dollars in business.