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Newark, New Jersey is in the midst of a much needed rebirth. A city that has been in decline since the social movement of the 1960s, gentrification is taking root, much like it did in nearby Brooklyn a decade ago. But like most big cities, this comes at a price, one often paid by those that can least afford it.
Buildings all across downtown Newark are being demolished, replaced by mixed use buildings with businesses such as Whole Foods and Chipotle on the ground floor, and upwards of 40 percent of the residential rental units above reserved for low-income housing. In a town where three out of four residents are working class renters, the need for affordable housing far outstrips the supply.
Fortunately, the city plans to offer a free attorney to low-income renters who are getting evicted.
Though Mayor Ras Baraka has repeatedly proclaimed all will be included in the city's renaissance, struggling renters are keenly aware they may soon be pushed out of the market. Residents in Newark's affordable housing units face eviction at an alarming rate, almost four times the national average. Nine times out of ten, these evicted tenants had no legal representation, and quite possibly the landlords were evicting tenants illegally. That's about to change.
Newark initiated proceedings to provide free legal help to low-income tenants facing eviction, many of whom don't know their legal rights. Though details of the plan are still being fleshed out, the mayor plans to mimic New York City's "right to counsel" law. The city will provide free legal eviction counsel to tenants whose income is 200% of the federal poverty level or less. A non-profit company with a mayor-appointed board will manage the service, with local law firms contributing attorneys to the company pro-bono. Funding and a start date for the company must still be determined.
As gentrification sweeps the nation during this economic rebound, many large cities are offering free eviction legal services to low-income renters. Tenants, when represented by lawyers, are twice as likely to reach agreements with landlords so they can stay in their homes. An added bonus is avoiding an eviction on their record, which can make it more difficult to find another place to live.
In recent years, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, and San Francisco have joined the trend of offering free legal services, with many more cities and counties in the works. The underlying concept is understandable: though the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the right to an attorney in criminal cases, it doesn't apply to civil cases, such as eviction. However, civil cases can have equally devastating consequences for individuals, affecting employment, education, and health.
If you are facing eviction, see if your city offers free legal services. If not, contact a local landlord-tenant attorney in your area to see if they can help you keep your home. Many will offer their services free or at a deep discount if you ask.
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