Tenant's right to counsel: Newark, NJ
Results and accomplishments
Since launch, Newark's Office of Tenant Legal Services (OTLS) has approved over 900 applicants for direct legal services, including legal advice, legal representation, and preparation of legal documents.
As of August 2021, Newark's Office of Tenant Legal Services (OTLS) has received over 1,100 applications for legal assistance since officially opening in June 2019.
To date, Newark's Office of Tenant Legal Services (OTLS) has provided legal guidance or connections to legal services for nearly 3,000 Newark tenants.
- Among the first cities in the country with a Tenant’s Right to Counsel law: In establishing the Office of Tenant Legal Services, Newark became the third city in the country to provide legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction, following San Francisco and New York City.
- Increasing capacity to serve more tenants: In its first six months of operation, OTLS received approximately 230 applications for legal support. The following year, they received nearly 500 applications, and in the first seven months of 2021 they have already received 350 applications, growing to support increasing numbers of Newark renters.
- Demonstrated success yields additional funding: After having demonstrated strong results in its first six months, in 2020, OTLS received a significant increase in funding from the City of Newark, its first philanthropic grant from the Victoria Foundation, and partnered with the NJ SHARES SMART program to provide rental assistance to OTLS clients behind on rent.
- Improving New Jersey court system for renters: Since March 2021 OTLS Coordinator Khabirah Myers has acted as an inaugural member of the statewide Judiciary Special Committee on Landlord Tenant, which makes recommendations to the New Jersey Supreme Court on ways to systematically and fundamentally improve the eviction proceeding process in an effort to yield more fair, equitable outcomes for New Jersey tenants.
- Awarded Pro Bono designation: In Summer 2021 OTLS was granted Pro Bono status, meaning that lawyers can count the time they spend on OTLS cases toward their state-mandated Pro Bono requirement. This designation helps OTLS attract additional lawyers to support their clients. In June 2021, the OTLS acquired Continuing Legal Education (CLE) accredited-provider status, which further incentivizes local lawyers to work with OTLS.
In Newark, nearly 80 percent of residents are renters. In FY 2018, one in four of them received an eviction notice, totaling 20,000 eviction filings. Since eviction proceedings are civil cases, tenants were not guaranteed legal representation. While evidence from other cities showed that tenants with legal representation are significantly more likely to remain in their homes, Newark had no process to connect tenants with a lawyer.
To reduce evictions, the City created the Office of Tenant Legal Services (OTLS) in 2019. OTLS connects low-income renters facing eviction with free legal representation for their eviction proceedings. Eligible residents receive legal help from an OTLS coordinator, and they are referred to contracted lawyers for additional support as needed. In 2020, the office received nearly 500 applications for assistance.
Keys to the program’s success included strong leadership from Mayor Ras Baraka, which built momentum to create program; the use of data to demonstrate the scale of the eviction problem and build support for change; collaboration with the Newark court system to inform the program’s design; partnering with the Newark Housing Authority to reduce the number of eviction filings coming from public housing; and framing the issue as a cost-reduction strategy, which built support among local leaders.
Challenges the program faced included greater demand for its services than it could meet, a limited budget, issues coordinating with and ensuring quality of contracted lawyers, and the large administrative burden associated with procuring contracts for lawyers.
What was the challenge?
- Increasing rents, decreasing incomes: Between 2000 and 2017, average rents in Newark increased by 20 percent as median income fell by 10 percent. As of 2019, the city’s median household income was $35,199, and the poverty rate was 27.4%, compared to the national average of 10.5 percent.
- Large numbers of renters at risk: In Newark, nearly 80 percent of residents are renters. As of 2017, half of renters in Newark were rent-burdened, meaning that they spent more than one-third of their income on rent. In the 2018 fiscal year, 1 out of every 4 renters received an eviction notice, totaling 20,000 evictions filed in Newark, representing over half of all evictions filed across Essex County.
- Tenants largely unaware of legal rights: As in other cities, evictions in Newark were frequently occurring on illegal grounds. Tenants were often unaware of their rights as renters and unable to effectively challenge unlawful attempts at eviction.
- Poor outcomes for tenants without legal representation: Because eviction proceedings are civil rather than criminal cases, approximately 9 out of 10 tenants nationally appear in eviction court without a lawyer, whereas approximately 9 out of 10 landlords appear with a lawyer. Without legal representation, defendants were almost always evicted.
- No coordinated ability to provide legal representation: Evidence from around the country had demonstrated that legal representation significantly increased the likelihood that defendants would be able to stay in their homes. But Newark had no coordinated capacity to connect tenants with legal representation.
What was the solution?
- Guaranteeing tenants the right to access legal counsel: Recognizing the importance of increasing housing stability and reducing evictions, in 2019, the City of Newark created the Office of Tenant Legal Services (OTLS), which connects low-income renters facing eviction with access to free legal representation for their eviction proceedings.
- Eligibility for low-income renters in Newark: Most renters throughout Newark who are facing the threat of eviction are eligible to receive legal assistance if their household income is at or below 200 percent of the current federal poverty level.
- Partnering with local legal service providers: OTLS maintains contracts with local lawyers, law firms, and legal aid organizations to provide direct legal services to tenants. Tenants apply to OTLS for services, and if they are eligible, the office’s Coordinator, who is also its in-house lawyer, gives the tenants legal help. The office also connects tenants to a contracted lawyer for direct support if needed.
- OTLS creation and success facilitated and supported by Mayor Baraka: The creation of the Office of Tenant Legal Services was a high priority for Mayor Ras Baraka, who has made tenant protections and illegal eviction prevention a core part of his administration's broader focus on equitable economic development.
What factors drove success?
- Strong mayoral leadership: The right to legal counsel for tenants facing eviction was consistently championed by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. His advocacy created momentum for the creation of OTLS and has helped the office maintain support throughout city government and its partners.
- Using data to make the case for reform and create targeted strategies: The city worked closely with the Rutgers University Center on Law, Inequality, and Metropolitan Equity (CLiME) to understand Newark-specific housing and eviction data. Analysis from CLiME was instrumental in illuminating the scale of the eviction issue, building the support for eviction prevention interventions, and creating a targeted strategy to improve outcomes.
- Collaboration with Newark court system: When designing OTLS and the access to counsel ordinance, the city worked closely with the judiciary to explore patterns within eviction cases. This allowed them to pinpoint high-frequency illegal evictors, identify common reasons for evictions, and design appropriately inclusive eligibility criteria.
- Intra-city partnerships: After learning from the courts that the Newark Housing Authority was responsible for a large percentage of eviction filings, OTLS worked with the Housing Authority to identify creative solutions to avoid evictions where possible.
- Universally appealing framing: Framing the issue of Right to Counsel as a long-term cost-reduction strategy was a helpful way to get local leaders on board. Advocates cited research on the downstream costs of evictions, such as homelessness support services, mental health care, and emergency services as a way of persuading skeptics of the value of prevention strategies.
What were the major obstacles?
- Demand outpacing supply: Although OTLS manages hundreds of cases at a time, the demand for legal representation in eviction proceedings continues to far outpace their current caseload capacity.
- Constrained budget: OTLS currently operates with an annual budget of $750,000 from the city’s general operating revenue, less than half of the budget recommended by Rutgers Professor David Troutt in a systems design memo. At current funding levels, the office is limited in its ability to hire additional staff, conduct targeted outreach, and meet the demand for legal representation among Newark tenants.
- Initially unable to hire in-house lawyers: Early internal protocol prevented the office from hiring full-time, in-house lawyers to handle their caseload, instead requiring OTLS to refer clients to external contracted lawyers. Although the current Coordinator handles some cases, most legal representation thus far has been provided by contracted lawyers, which limits OTLS’s ability to oversee legal providers. Without in-house lawyers, it has been difficult to coordinate across contracted lawyers and ensure high quality services for every client.
- Intensive contract procurement process: A significant portion of administrative time is spent identifying, procuring, and managing contracts. The contract procurement process is lengthy, and requires significant time and effort to get contracts approved and begin working with contracted lawyers.
Mayor Ras Baraka becomes interested in providing tenants facing eviction with legal representation as a mechanism to improve housing stability. He and members of his staff meet with New York City leaders to learn from their experience implementing a Right to Counsel Ordinance.
Mayor Baraka works closely with the law firm McCarter & English to launch a new fellowship initiative that provides Pro Bono, holistic legal representation for Newark tenants facing eviction. McCarter & English begins the process of hiring a full-time fellow to support tenants across the city.
Mayor Baraka establishes Newark Forward to convene leaders across sectors to identify innovative policy solutions to Newark’s most pressing issues. The initiative includes a Housing Committee, chaired by former Rent Regulation Officer Jacquea A. Lee. In Newark Forward’s Blueprint for Equitable Growth and Opportunity report, the Housing Committee puts forth recommendations including the enactment of a Right to Counsel Ordinance, which the committee begins to draft. Khabirah Myers, Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Newark, assists in this drafting process.
The Newark Forward Housing Committee’s legal access ordinance ensures a right to counsel for low-income Newark tenants by establishing the Office of Tenant Legal Services. The City Council votes to approve the ordinance in December, providing $400,000 in funding for OTLS in its first year.
Former Assistant Corporation Counsel Khabirah Myers is brought on as Coordinator of OTLS and oversees the establishment of the office. Early work includes developing contracts with local lawyers and law firms, building relationships with legal aid non-profit organizations, and coordinating with agencies like the Newark Housing Authority and the judiciary.
OTLS contracts with Essex Newark Legal Services (ENLS), a local legal aid organization already working in eviction prevention, to begin providing legal counsel to Newark tenants facing eviction. Potential clients begin applying for legal services through OTLS and, if eligible, are paired with a lawyer from ENLS.
After quickly demonstrating impact, OTLS receives a $60,000 grant from the Victoria Foundation to support their continued operations. OTLS uses these funds to support contracts with legal partners and for administrative costs of running the office.
Through a partnership with OTLS, NJ SHARES sets aside $372,000 in funding to provide direct payment to the landlords of OTLS tenants, up to $2,000 per recipient per year, to prevent evictions for nonpayment of rent.
After applying to the New Jersey Judiciary to be recognized as a certified Pro Bono service provider in April of 2019, OTLS received this designation in Summer 2021. This status allows volunteer lawyers who work with OTLS to receive time toward their state-mandated Pro Bono requirement. In June, OTLS also begins providing legal trainings on Landlord-Tenant law, which are CLE accredited, allowing lawyers who attend the trainings to complete hours toward their annual CLE requirements. These changes help OTLS attract additional lawyers to support its clients.
How did leaders confront the problem?
- Report shines a light on the rising eviction crisis: In 2017, the Rutgers University Center for Law, Inequality, and Metropolitan Equity (CLiME) released a report on Newark’s housing affordability and stability crisis. The report advocated for a range of eviction prevention reforms and strategies, including the provision of legal representation for tenants with low incomes facing eviction.
- Mayor convenes committee to address housing crisis: Mayor Ras Baraka convened the Newark Forward initiative, which sought to promote equitable economic development across the city. Housing stability was identified as a major policy priority.
- Newark leaders explore Right to Counsel: As the concept of legal representation for tenants facing eviction gained momentum in Newark, Mayor Baraka and his team traveled to New York City to learn from members of the de Blasio administration about the implementation of their Right to Counsel law.
- Newark leadership embraces Right to Counsel: Mayor Ras Baraka and the Newark Forward Housing Committee identified free legal counsel to tenants facing eviction as a promising mechanism to increase housing stability. The final recommendations of the Newark Forward initiative included a call for the establishment of the Right to Counsel, via a new Office of Tenant Legal Services.
How was the strategy designed?
- Drafting the OTLS ordinance: Once the Newark Forward recommendations were published, Mayor Baraka’s staff assembled a steering committee to draft an ordinance that would establish the capacity to provide tenants with low incomes with access to free legal counsel. The steering committee is led by Kenyatta Stewart, Corporation Counsel; Jacquea A. Lee, Rent Regulation Officer; and Jason C. Grove, Senior Policy Advisor; and includes representatives from CLiME, McCarter & English, Ironbound Community Corporation, and other community-based organizations.
- Using data to inform strategy: Drawing on data from CLiME and the Newark court system, the Housing Committee sought to understand where evictions in Newark were happening, the parties who are filing for eviction, and the cited causes for eviction. This helped in developing a targeted strategy that was responsive to the needs of Newark tenants most impacted by evictions.
- Contracting with direct legal service providers: In an effort to capitalize on existing resources (and given the cost of employing in-house lawyers), the designers of the Right to Counsel Ordinance envisioned OTLS contracting with legal providers including law firms, private lawyers, and non-profit legal aid organizations to provide counsel to clients rather than hiring in-house lawyers.
- Broad eligibility criteria: To help ensure that all Newark tenants with financial need would be eligible for legal assistance, designers of the ordinance decided to cap income eligibility at 200 percent of the current federal poverty level.
How was the approach funded?
- An initial public commitment: In 2019, the city committed to providing $400,000 in start-up funds to establish and run OTLS. These funds primarily went toward building up staffing, administrative infrastructure, and lawyer contracts.
- Success drives greater public investment: After demonstrating success in its first year, OTLS successfully advocated for a significant increase to the office’s annual budget, with city council increasing the office’s annual budget to $750,000 in 2020.
- Victoria Foundation grants support expansion: In 2019 and 2020, OTLS receives $60,000 and $90,000 grants, respectively, from the Victoria Foundation to support lawyer contracts and administrative expenses.
How was the plan implemented?
- City Council approves new Office of Tenant Legal Services: With Mayor Baraka’s support, the City Council approves the Right to Counsel Ordinance, making Newark the third city in the country to provide free legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction. The ordinance establishes the Office of Tenant Legal Services, which is housed within the Department of Economic and Housing Development.
- OTLS hires Coordinator: Mayor Baraka appoints Khabirah Myers, Esq. as the Coordinator of OTLS. As the first full-time employee, Khabirah leads the process of establishing and overseeing the office, beginning with building relationships with local lawyers, law firms, and nonprofits, applying for official Pro Bono designation to attract additional volunteer lawyers, and offering accredited trainings in Landlord-Tenant law.
- Multi-pronged community outreach: To build awareness of the availability of free legal counsel, OTLS begins outreach to community members by hosting regular know-your-rights workshops and town halls. The Newark judiciary supports outreach efforts by holding informational webinars highlighting OTLS services and regularly referring tenants to OTLS. Additionally, many residents learn of OTLS through word of mouth.
- Immediate high demand: In its first six months of operation, OTLS receives nearly 250 applications for support. Demand grows over time, with the office having received over 1,100 applications as of August 2021.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- OTLS closely tracks outcomes: OTLS closely tracks the number of applicants and the number of families assisted, in addition to the proceeding outcomes. These metrics demonstrate not only the current impact, but also the widespread demand.
- Additional staffing and budget: As OTLS has demonstrated impact, they have successfully advocated for more dedicated full-time staff and additional funding from the city to serve more Newark tenants.
- Implementing Pro Bono support path: In 2021, OTLS secured Pro Bono certification and began offering continuing legal education (CLE) classes to provide additional incentives for local lawyers to contract with OTLS. OTLS is currently in the process of implementing a new method of providing legal support via Pro Bono, volunteer attorneys. This process will be significantly less cumbersome for OTLS than contracting with external lawyers because it will not require legally binding contracts or the exchange of payment.
- Financial assistance through NJ SHARES partnership: With evidence showing that 29 percent of all OTLS cases involve nonpayment of rent, in 2020 OTLS leadership began partnering with local non-profit NJ SHARES to provide OTLS clients with direct financial assistance. NJ SHARES commits to providing clients facing nonpayment of rent eviction cases with up to $2,000 per client for owed rent up to a total of $372,000.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in completing this case study: Khabirah Myers of the Office of Tenant Legal Services; Jay Lee, Small Business Development Officer of the City of Newark; Kenyatta Stewart, Corporation Counsel of the City of Newark; and Allison Ladd, Deputy Mayor and Director of Economic and Housing Development of the City of Newark.