Building a House for Gideon: The Right to Counsel in Evictions


The United States appears to be on the cusp of an eviction defense revolution. For the first time in U.S. history, tenants facing eviction in several jurisdictions are guaranteed legal representation. In under two years, three cities passed legislation establishing the right to counsel in evictions, and many more states and cities are poised to follow. Jurisdictions nationwide should build on this movement and similarly enact legislation to provide a right to an attorney for those facing the loss of a core human interest, their home. This Article examines three groundbreaking right to counsel statutes from New York City, San Francisco, and Newark, New Jersey, argues for jurisdictions nationwide to adopt similar legislation, and provides a framework for improving existing and future legislation.

The Article places the right to counsel in evictions against the backdrop of the housing crisis and in the context of the history of the civil right to counsel movement. Evictions are filed at a rate of four per minute in the United States. Eviction courts have been characterized by legal scholars as “eviction machines,” churning out orders evicting unrepresented tenants in favor of their represented landlords, regardless of the merits of the case. The consequences of eviction are tragic, impacting tenants’ physical and mental health for years. Evictions both destabilize and place an increased financial burden on communities. However, when tenants are represented by a lawyer, they are dramatically more successful. Tenants with counsel effectively raise defenses, obtain settlement agreements to avoid eviction, and obtain repairs so they can live in safe and healthy conditions.

This Article argues that cities and states across the country should adopt their own right to counsel in eviction legislation. It also provides a framework for strengthening existing laws and future legislation, arguing that the right to counsel should attach earlier in the eviction process and that tenants should be guaranteed representation in both cases terminating housing assistance and affirmative cases seeking to remedy substandard housing conditions.


Stanford University Stanford, California
  • Ericka Petersen, Building a House for Gideon: The Right to Counsel in Evictions, 16 Stan. J. C.R. & C.L. 63 (2020).
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