April 16, 2018

Eviction Triage

The Problem

Eviction from one’s home is a traumatic experience. Residential displacement can disrupt a host of life activities and undoubtedly takes an emotional toll on tenants and their families. From illness to unemployment and of course homelessness, evicted tenants often experience life-changing adversity. To mitigate those impacts, we need to know more about how tenants find themselves as defendants in summary eviction proceedings, the role that lawyers play in stopping or delaying those proceedings, and whether existing legal solutions actually address the problems of eviction as we understand them. Even if lawyers make a difference, we still need to know how effectively lawyers allocate their scarce time and resources to the pool of potential clients.

Problems with Current Solutions

A significant number of summary eviction lawsuits are filed against tenants whose landlords believe have failed either to pay their rent or follow some other requirement of the lease. Most tenants subject to eviction cannot afford—and therefore do not have—attorneys. There simply aren’t enough lawyers in supply to meet the demand. Current solutions that address this shortfall, including self-help materials for unrepresented litigants, have not been tested rigorously. Given the national importance of the issue, understanding the best way to help tenants could have a huge impact on the rental housing market.

Rhode Island Triage and Eviction Study (RITES)

In partnership with the Rhode Island Center for Justice (“CFJ”) and the Roger Williams University School of Law (“RWUSOL”), the Lab has designed a double-randomized study, slated to launch in 2019. This RCT will investigate (1) how well lawyers make decisions about whom to represent; and (2) whether outcomes with direct representation are measurably different from those where tenants only have access to self-help materials. After staff attorneys conduct intake and make provisional representation decisions, the Lab will randomize each potential client into one of two groups (the first level of randomization). In the first group, the attorney’s decision will be followed; in the second group, another random decision will replace the attorney’s. Among that second group, a computer-based randomizer will “decide” whether the potential client receives an offer of representation or self-help materials (the second level of randomization).

This RCT design will help identify which eviction defendants’ outcomes truly depend on representation, whether those outcomes are continuances, stays of execution, or even possession of the apartment. It also will reveal whether the offer of direct representation increases the probability of success relative to receiving the self-help packet. Considering the larger social impact of eviction, this study will include non-adjudicatory outcomes measures such as the incidence of homelessness, unemployment, and adverse health effects, among other individual welfare consequences.

In the News

Evicted in R.I.: When there’s no place like home,The Providence Journal (July 14, 2017)
Force Multipliers,” Roger Williams University School of Law (April 6, 2018)

The Research Team

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, Access to Justice Lab, Harvard Law School

Chris Griffin, Research Director, Access to Justice Lab, Harvard Law School

April Faith-Slaker, Associate Director of Research Innovations, Access to Justice Lab, Harvard Law School