The Seattle City Council unanimously approved “right to counsel” legislation Monday that will entitle residential tenants facing eviction to an attorney at no cost.
The vote on this legislation, sponsored by District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant, was originally scheduled for two weeks ago, but was delayed via council vote to sort out possible legal concerns. The original bill could have faced a lawsuit since it looked to give everyone the right to legal counsel regardless of income. Washington’s state constitution prohibits cities from giving money to people “except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm.”
Sawant hailed the “historic renter and socialist movement’s ‘Right to Counsel’ victory” in a press release from City Hall after Monday’s vote.
“Today’s historic vote in the City Council to approve our movement’s Right to Counsel legislation from my office is a huge step forward for renters rights in our city,” Sawant said in the press release. “No longer will renters have to fear going to eviction court without the legal aid that they desperately need and justly deserve.”
She thanked several groups for helping push for the legislation including Socialist Alternative, Be:Seattle, the Tenants Union of Washington, UAW 4121, and the ACLU despite “calls from Democrats on the City Council to water down our bill.”
Sawant also filled the public comment session prior to Monday’s full council meeting with speaker after speaker in support of the legislation.
To satisfy concerns about possible legal challenges, the council overcame objections from Sawant and added an amendment to exclude tenants who are not “indigent.” Legislation from 2017 defines “indigent” as a person who is “unable to pay the anticipated cost of counsel… because the person’s available funds are insufficient for the retention of counsel.”
“I believe that this language is going to minimize legal risks of having this law survive the legal challenge, which again I believe is almost going to certainly happen, while also providing access to a right to counsel to those who need it,” said Council President Lorena González, the sponsor of the amendment.
Sawant was the only council member to vote against the González amendment, arguing that it makes tenants “jump through some kind of hoop before they qualify.” Continue reading