Law firm partners with Newark to provide free help in eviction cases

One Newark resident says his landlord has brought him into housing court four times in two years to try to evict him. While NJTV News can’t verify his story as to why, he is one of the lucky few to have a lawyer.

“Dismissed. The lawyer came in and dismissed the case,” he said.

Newark’s Mayor Ras Baraka says the city needs a lot of lawyers to handle the thousands of eviction cases each year, and one law firm is planning to help.

McCarter & English plans to hire a pro bono attorney who will work on landlord/tenant disputes in Newark. It’s one piece of the mayor’s initiative to offer free legal aid for low-income residents facing eviction.

“We have been advocating lately about the kind of housing crisis that exists in the city of Newark through inclusionary zoning ordinances, through opportunities that we are creating to make sure people stay in their homes, where they’re not foreclosed on their homes, and lastly so people are not evicted frivolously,” Baraka said.

There are about 40,000 eviction cases each year in Essex County and the vast majority of tenants show up without a lawyer. That’s a big deal because law school studies have shown that tenants with lawyers are 10 times more likely to win in court.

“There are staggering numbers of eviction proceedings filed in the city of Newark each year and only a tiny fraction of the tenants actually have legal representation. We know that having a lawyer in housing court makes a difference. Lawyers can help negotiate settlements that give people time to make a plan,” said Michelle Movahed, pro bono director at McCarter & English. “We know that having a lawyer means that tenants can assert the defenses they may not even know exist.”

The firm is creating a pro bono fellowship and is looking for an experienced, bilingual litigator to begin this year. Ideally, the lawyer will be someone with strong ties to Newark who has a passion for public service.

While the lawyer will initially focus solely on housing, the position can be expanded to take on other legal issues in the future.

“Our executive committee enthusiastically endorsed this great idea of hiring a full-time pro bono attorney whose job it will be to be dedicated solely to serving the unmet legal needs of Newark’s residents,” said Robert Mintz, managing partner of McCarter & English’s Newark office.

Newark officials say the housing crisis is real with low income families facing too few housing options. The city says it needs to balance the revitalization of downtown Newark, and rising housing prices that come with it, with the need to maintain affordable housing.

“That’s one of the reasons why we began thinking about it, because of all of the development and all of the interest in the city of Newark, that we need to protect our residents. And looking at that, you begin to see how the problem by itself is already terrible, to have new development come would only exacerbate that if there were no protections,” Baraka said.

Another resident, Thelma, was also in housing court Wednesday, but with a different outcome. She didn’t have a lawyer, and she now has to come back another day because she’s missing paperwork that proves she has paid her $920 a month rent.