Tenants who are at risk of eviction may have several options, depending on how far the termination and eviction have progressed and the circumstances of the case. A good deal of "self-help" may be possible at the beginning, and in some situations, legal help as well.
Landlords must properly terminate a tenancy before proceeding to court and filing for eviction. The termination may be based on the tenant's failure to pay rent, failure to abide by another lease term, or on the tenant's violation of a law. The termination notice may give tenants time to correct the problem (pay the rent, follow the lease), or it may simply tell the tenant to move. Notices always give tenants the option of moving, within a specified period of time, in order to avoid the filing of an eviction lawsuit.
If you've received a termination notice and cannot or will not cure the problem, you should expect the landlord to follow-through and file a lawsuit. Before that happens, however, try to meet with the landlord and try to negotiate a resolution short of an eviction. For example, if you're late with the rent, you may be able to set-up a payment schedule; if the landlord is terminating because of the loud party you threw last week-end, you may be able to assure him that it won't happen again.
If it's difficult to talk things over with the landlord on your own, you might suggest mediation. Mediation involves a neutral third party who facilitates a discussion between the two of you and helps you craft a solution. Mediators don't impose a decision or a ruling. Mediation works surprisingly well, perhaps because it gives people a chance, in a safe setting, to explain their points of view and be heard.
Many cities and towns offer landlord-mediation services (sometimes called "community boards"). These services are free or very low cost. Call your city prosecutor's or attorney's office and ask if your locale offers a mediation service.
If your landlord has filed an eviction lawsuit, it's still not too late to try to resolve matters informally, as explained above. But if this fails and you know you're headed for court, you're probably hoping for some help. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of eviction lawsuits, free help is not available, with the following exceptions.
Many tenants of modest or low income hope that the nearest legal aid office will be able to represent them. (Legal aid includes state-funded organizations and private non-profits that are subsidized by grants and sometimes by public money.) But legal aid offices can be few and far between, and even when an office is nearby, its income restrictions may price-out most tenants. For example, The Legal Aid Society in New York, one of the oldest and most sophisticated offices in the country, sets eligibility for taking civil cases at 125% of the federal poverty level (although some exceptions apply). A two-person family earning over $17,200 a year would not qualify.
Even with such a low qualification bar, legal aid offices are typically deluged with requests for help. Because of staffing limitations, the offices set priorities that rank the types of cases they will take. The cases at the top of the list are likely to be those that have a good chance of affecting a large number of people, or making a legal change, or both.
For example, legal aid might be interested in a case involving a tenant who withheld rent due to habitability problems, in a large multi-family property where such problems are rampant. The office might look for similarly-situated tenants to join the lawsuit, and hope that the result will send a strong message to the owner to clean up all of his properties.
The federal government enforces the Fair Housing Acts via the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Justice. State fair housing laws are enforced by state agencies. If you believe that your eviction is motivated by a discriminatory reason, contact the local HUD agency.
Civil rights issues are likely to be particularly attractive. For instance, a tenant with a disability who is being evicted after asking for an accommodation may be of particular interest, as would a person who is losing his rented home after the landlord learns of his religion or ethnicity. But even with these attractive cases, legal aid generally cannot take the case unless the tenant qualifies financially.
Many law schools offer low-income legal aid clinics. These programs are supervised by faculty who are lawyers, but the cases are handled by students. If there's a law school in your vicinity, it might be worthwhile to call and ask if they operate a civil law clinic that would handle an eviction. The income qualifications will vary with the school.
Many civil law firms offer representation for free, for selected cases. Offering free legal services (pro bono means "for the public good") is considered a mark of good professionalism in the legal community, and doing so offers marketing opportunities as well. Naturally, private firms are looking for cases they believe in, which involve facts or principles of law that they want to be associated with. Income qualifications will vary depending on the firm's policies.
To find a firm near you who might have a pro bono program, you could simply begin by calling a few and asking. If the firm doesn't offer such services, they are likely to know which firms do. Or, go to the website for your state's licensing agency for lawyers (the agency that issues Bar cards and administers the bar exam). The website might have information on how to find and contact lawyers that offer pro bono services (sometimes the state bar itself runs a program). CaliforniaProBono.org lists the many organizations in California that offer services.
Your state may have an agency that will take cases involving a violation of an important civil statute. For example, in California the "unfair business practices" law (Business and Professions Code Section 17200 and following) is enforced by the state's Attorney General (the AG), without regard to the income of the persons involved. If the AG believes that your case involves a deceptive or unfair practice, and one that affects a wide number of tenants, they may be interested. But they may be limited to filing a lawsuit on your behalf, not representing you in the eviction.
To know whether any such agency and state law exists in your state, begin by going to your state's main web page. Look for information for consumers, then look for links to agencies that enforce the civil laws in your state.
Tenants who haven't been able to resolve their problems with the landlord may decide that they'll stay and fight the eviction. You may conclude that one of the options for free or low-cost representation explained above might be available for your case. But before deciding to fight an eviction lawsuit, ask yourself the following questions and heed the impact of the answers. Although it may sound callous, the fact is that if your case isn't a likely winner, you may not find resources ready to help you.
What's your defense? It doesn't make sense to fight an eviction unless you have a legally-valid defense. That's different from an understandable reason why you did what you did: If you didn't pay the rent because you lost your job, that's understandable, but it's not a legal defense.
What's your track record? If you defend an eviction, you'll probably find yourself scrutinized by the opposition and grilled if you take the stand. Although many skeletons in the closet are technically off-limits, inventive lawyers often find ways to bring them to light. A tenant who has a history of misbehavior might not fare too well.
In addition to evaluating the strength of your case, you should think about your ability to pursue a lawsuit. For example,
Will you be able to find another rental with an eviction in your background? Even if you win your case, you may find that it will follow you to successive rentals, as you answer questions about your rental history on applications. Generally speaking, there's no law prohibiting a landlord from automatically rejecting applicants who have been involved in an eviction.
Can you spare the time and energy needed to go to court? Court cases are exhausting and will take time away from your job and other pursuits.
Is there a better alternative? Even if you have a good case, it may be wiser to simply leave. This isn't necessarily an admission of defeat; it may simply be a rational assessment of the benefits versus the costs of a court fight.