Article: Housing Defense as the New Gideon

Article: Kathryn A. Sabbeth, Housing Defense as the New Gideon, 43 Harv. J. L. & Gender (forthcoming).

New York City is poised to become the first jurisdiction in the United States to guarantee a right to counsel for poor people at risk of losing their homes. Although millions of Americans are evicted every year, until recently, scholars and policymakers largely ignored the eviction phenomenon. New research demonstrates the frequency of eviction and the breadth of its economic and social impacts on individuals, their families, and society at large. Relying on studies showing that housing defense lawyers decrease eviction rates and promote positive social outcomes, NYC legislators concluded that a right to housing defense counsel would be both morally right and cost-effective. They introduced Intro 214-A to establish such a right and, in February 2017, the NYC mayor announced that his administration will provide the funds the bill needs to move forward. This Article is the first to analyze this ground-breaking legislation.

The right to appointment of criminal defense counsel recognized in Gideon v. Wainwright grew out of the Supreme Court’s response to the Civil Rights Movement. Using NYC’s housing defense bill as a case study, this Article identifies three ways in which the civil right to counsel has the potential to build on the Gideon model and expand it for today. First, in targeting the secondary effects of the eviction phenomenon, the NYC legislature moves beyond procedure to promote substantive outcomes. Second, its focus on housing defense recognizes a set of concerns that disproportionately impact Black women, thus building on the racial equality aims underlying Gideon and adding a move toward gender equality. Third, whereas the criminal defense model defends individuals against state power, the new bill applies to tenants of public and private landlords, thus checking abuses of private power.

The Article also addresses the dynamics of defensive lawyering, a feature of both the old and the new models of appointment of counsel. Defensive lawyering suffers from systemic limitations and fails to challenge social problems that could be addressed through affirmative suits—such as discrimination, harassment, and unsafe conditions. The availability of counterclaims in civil litigation, however, makes the civil defensive position more flexible than its criminal cousin, and may overcome some of these limits. The Article concludes that the new right to counsel holds significant promise.

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