People at risk of prison or having parental rights terminated have the right to attorneys – at the state’s expense if they can’t afford them. And we get it, right? In cases like these, the stakes – losing liberty or a child – are too high to expect people to defend themselves in the complex and frightening legal world.
People at risk of losing their homes – by some estimates, 12.3 million nationwide in coming months – are not so lucky. Although free legal help is available through organizations like New Mexico Legal Aid, these services aren’t funded sufficiently to hire even a fraction of the attorneys needed. The vast majority of tenants facing the drastic upheaval involved in evictions are expected to represent themselves. This doesn’t bode well for the many who are behind on rent now that the federal CARES Act’s moratorium on evictions has expired. (President Trump recently suspended evictions for many through Dec. 31.)
There are still limited legal protections for tenants. The CARES Act itself provides that when the act expires, federally-subsidized landlords must serve a 30-day notice of nonpayment before they can file for eviction. Tenants still have the right to appeal to district court, and filing the appeal puts a legal halt to enforcement of evictions. The N.M. Supreme Court’s stay on enforcement of nonpayment evictions may also help, if tenants show their inability to pay.
These protections only delay evictions, and only if tenants have the information about their rights and means to enforce them. Amidst the confusing coverage of changing rules, many believe they don’t need to respond to eviction cases, and thus lose the chance to show judges their evictions should be stayed. Others will have technical problems that deprive them of fair telephonic hearings. Many of us feel helpless as we wait for the predicted tsunami of evictions.
One antidote is to help. If you’re a lawyer, get in touch with New Mexico Legal Aid and volunteer to defend some eviction cases. Are you a billionaire philanthropist that wants to write a check for us to hire 50 more housing attorneys? Kidding. How about this: Do you work with some organization that helps people? Ask N.M. Legal Aid to give you and your colleagues basic training on housing rights. Talk to your clients, patients and students about their housing situations. Help them advocate for themselves and apply for legal help.