This story was originally published by Greg Childress, NC Newsline
February 20, 2024

In Winston-Salem, support for a city ordinance granting tenants facing eviction a right to counsel is gaining momentum.

Last week, city council candidates attending a forum sponsored by Housing Justice Now, all agreed to support the effort, which has an estimated price tag of $1.2 million a year.

Phil Carter

“I’ve been in courtrooms with people when they are about to be evicted, and I know that when you go in a courtroom and you’re not a lawyer, you have no chance, no chance at all,” said Phil Carter, a candidate vying for the city’s East Ward council seat.

Carter said state lawmakers must create a expungement process for people wrongly evicted so that they aren’t penalized when applying for rental housing.

It’s estimated that 90 percent of landlords in eviction cases nationally have legal representation while only 10 percent of tenants do, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty. Without legal representation, tenants are more likely to lose eviction cases, tenants’ rights advocates say.

“We know that overwhelmingly, when tenants are facing eviction, they are doing so without access to legal counsel and that creates a massive power imbalance where the landlord has access to the technical knowledge — people who have the right relationships can navigate the system — whereas the tenants don’t,” said Nick MacLeod, executive director of the North Carolina Tenants’ Union.  

Bob Hartwell, a candidate for the city’s Northwest Ward seat, said tenants facing eviction must have legal representation to ensure they are treated fairly. Hartwell is an attorney and former superior court judge who served four terms as a Democratic state senator in Vermont. 

Bob Hartwell

“I never thought it was appropriate for anyone to be in those places in a courtroom without a lawyer unless they were involved in a small claims [dispute],” Hartwell said. “That was the only time that it was satisfactory for somebody to be possibly standing there and trying to do it on their own.” 

Housing Justice Now, a volunteer organization that fights evictions and provides tenant support, plus other tenant-focused and landlord-focused organizations make up the city’s Eviction Diversion Network (EDN). The network advocates for a right-to-counsel ordinance that would guarantee free legal advice to all residents facing eviction. 

The city council has demonstrated modest support for right to legal counsel by setting aside $100,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act to pay for a one-year pilot program in partnership with Legal Aid of North Carolina. Tenants residing in federally subsidized or private housing who meet Legal Aid’s residency, jurisdictional and income requirements are eligible for the program.

Legal Aid services are available to families whose income is under 125 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a family of four cannot have an annual income above $33,125. Additionally, to qualify for Legal Aid services, families cannot have assets that exceed twice the income limit. For a family of four, that’s $66,250. 

By most accounts, Legal Aid attorneys are stretched thin. The organization or other legal nonprofits could use city funding to hire attorneys, paralegals and other office support staff if a right-to-counsel ordinance is approved and fully funded. Support for a city ordinance granting tenants facing eviction a right to counsel is gaining momentum.

However, Housing Justice Now and the EDN are advocating for an ordinance that would have no income limitations. All residents facing eviction would have access to free counsel. 

“We want to have an ordinance that is strong,” Housing Justice Now volunteer Dan Rose told Newsline. “We want it to say it’s [a right-to-counsel] is universal.”

Backers of a right-to-counsel ordinance also want to see city officials permanently fund program. That could be a game changer for tenants facing eviction, advocates say. 

Rose said the right to counsel is sorely needed in a city that has 10,000 to 12,000 eviction hearings each year. That number includes tenants who appear for multiple hearings.

“Out of those 10,000 to 12,000 hearings, not all of them lead to an eviction where the sheriff comes and locks you out,” Rose said. “There’s even a few cases where a tenant can win.”

But, Rose said, there are still roughly 5,000 evictions annually in Winston-Salem.

And Rose noted that even when a tenant wins an eviction case, it still shows up as a mark against their record. That can make it difficult to rent housing in the future, he said.

“The reporting agencies that give landlords these background checks when they check on a new tenant, all they look at is the docket, and if they see your name on the docket, then all they see is the person has an eviction on their record,” Rose said. 

Some tenants facing eviction in Winston-Salem might leave court not knowing the judge has ruled in the landlord’s favor, said Housing Justice Now volunteer Paula Traffas, who provided eviction support to residents during the pandemic.

“The process can be complicated for a layperson,” Traffas said. “Because of the language the judge used, people often came out not knowing they lost.”

Like renters across the state and nation, Winston-Salem’s low-income tenants are facing harrowing times. They are often a car repair or medical emergency away from missing a rent payment. The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,190, according to, an increase of 3 percent over this time last year. One-bedrooms run about $1,035, a decrease of roughly 11 percent. 

However, these prices are still out of reach for many low-and moderate-earners, whose wages remain stagnant. In 2022, for example, wages for health care support workers averaged $16.24 an hour, according to the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s equivalent to $33,730 a year. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Winston-Salem would consume 42 percent of the worker’s pay. And fast-food workers would spend nearly half their income on a one-bedroom unit. 

That disconnect between wages and income is a big reason for high eviction rates across North Carolina and the country, housing advocates say.  

“There is not enough housing that is available and accessible at the levels of [income] that people are making,” MacLeod said. “In short, the rents are too high.”

North Carolina’s eviction crisis is also being fueled by laws that are overwhelmingly pro-landlord, MacLeod added.

“We don’t have protections against rent gouging,” he said. “We don’t have protections around good cause evictions, which would basically say that you can only be evicted if there is a good cause like you didn’t pay the rent or your violated the lease.”

At least 15 cities and three states have enacted a right to counsel for renters in eviction cases. In North Carolina, organizations in Charlotte and Greensboro are currently pushing for right-to-counsel ordinances similar to the one proposed for Winston-Salem.

Meanwhile, Rose said advocates for a right-to-counsel ordinance are cautiously optimistic about the candidates’ pledge to support the program if they are elected to office.

“While they may all say they are in support of it, we’re not counting our chickens,” Rose said. “I think there’s a couple of folks [candidates] who didn’t show up last night who will probably win election in this coming month and be seated in January of 2025 who will get us over the top and give us a majority of council people [who support an ordinance].”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: [email protected]. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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