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Ingrassia proposes giving St. Louisans the right to counsel during eviction proceedings

St. Louis renters listen to the reading of Board Board 180 and attorney and tenant testimonies during the Jan. 26 Health and Human Services Committee meeting at the Deaconess Foundation.
Action St. Louis
St. Louis renters listen to the reading of Board Bill 180 and attorney and tenant testimony during the Jan. 26 Health and Human Services Committee meeting at the Deaconess Foundation.

Renters in St. Louis could soon have the right to counsel during eviction proceedings, under a bill filed last month by Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia.

Board Bill 180, now in committee, also would require landlords to disclose information to tenants about their rights to legal representation. The measure would offer free legal representation for St. Louis renters and create a coordinator position to run the program.

Tenants who face eviction and show up to court without an attorney are putting themselves in a difficult situation and could possibly become homeless, said Ingrassia, D-6th Ward.

“There are just much better outcomes for both tenants and landlords when both parties are represented by an attorney versus having a landlord who has lawyered up versus a tenant who is left to their own devices in order to make sense of a very complicated and complex legal eviction system,” she said.

The proposed measure is modeled after legislation in other cities across the country that have passed a tenant's right to counsel bill. It could cost around $1.6 million a year to operate.

Ingrassia said she is working with local philanthropic groups and other organizations to help pay attorneys fees. She also plans to determine if some of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act funds could help fund the process.

Ingrassia said she grew concerned for residents who could not pay rent and could be evicted after St. Louis officials lifted eviction moratoriums put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. She met with representatives of local housing organizations, tenant rights groups and other stakeholders on what could be done to help keep people in their homes.

During the pandemic, Action St. Louis and other housing and justice groups in the city began encouraging tenants at their monthly meetings to better understand their rental concerns and what protections need to be in place to help keep them in their homes.

Many tenants complain about the lack of affordable homes, slumlords and the physical and interior conditions of their homes, but most want protections from their landlords if they have to see them in eviction court, Action St. Louis Housing Organizer Kennard Williams said.

“People get told to go to court, and they don't have access to representation, which ultimately leads to people getting eviction judgments on their records,” Williams said. “And that in turn leads to a spiraling effect … you end up basically getting pushed into like another market when you're dealing with slumlords.”

Williams said many tenants often are intimidated by court proceedings and do not show up and subsequently walk away from their homes. He hopes the measure passes so people can have the option of going to court with representation even if they can’t afford it.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.