At 54, DeBorah Gilbert White had a PhD in psychology, a car, two cats, a one-bedroom apartment in Newcastle, Delaware, and a part-time teaching job. But her salary for instructing online classes at the for-profit University of Phoenix wasn’t quite enough to pay her $599 monthly rent, even after Gilbert White dropped her cable subscription, budgeted zero for entertainment, and began visiting food pantries.
One day she came home to find an eviction notice fluttering from her door. And when she faced her landlord in court, there was no lawyer to represent her. “I think of myself as somebody who can think on her feet and present herself in a way that’s understandable,” says Gilbert White. “But even for me, to be in a courtroom and know I’m there because I’m not able to pay my rent...it was overwhelming. In that courtroom, I was the only one there for me.”
Gilbert White’s eviction—which resulted in a 30-day stay in a women’s shelter and a subsequent decade of advocacy for women in similar situations—happened in 2011. But today, the outcomes for tenants in eviction filings remain grim.
Under “normal” circumstances—that is, before the pandemic sapped jobs and toppled millions of Americans who were already living on the financial edge—3.7 million evictions were filed each year. That’s about seven eviction notices every minute. And most tenants who go to court plead their cases without legal counsel.
That’s something former Moravian University professor James Teufel wants to change. As a public health expert, Teufel is acutely aware of the cascade of problems that can follow an eviction: If an individual or family becomes homeless, their kids may miss school. Adults might lose their jobs. Children may end up in foster care. The whole family is at higher risk of health problems.
The pandemic upped the ante. People living on the street, in shelters, or in their cars—or even those couch-surfing with friends and family—are less able to physically distance, making them more susceptible to COVID-19. A federal moratorium on evictions helped forestall disaster for millions of people, but the US Supreme Court ended that moratorium on August 26, 2021.
“Eviction has direct effects on health, including increased hospitalization rates among children and increased depression and anxiety among adults,” concluded an October 2021 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal also noted that eviction hurts neighborhoods, making them unstable and eroding social ties.
What’s more, eviction rates reflect decades of systemic racism: People of color, and especially Black women, are most at risk. Eviction, Teufel says, is “the end stage of a cascade of social disadvantage” that includes redlining, blockbusting, exclusion from federal loan programs, and racial discrimination in employment and pay.
For Teufel, the long-term solution is simple to grasp but difficult to implement: Address those longstanding inequities, put more money in people’s pockets, and make housing more accessible and affordable. “Complex problems are paradoxically typically best addressed by simple solutions,” he says. “In the short term, having legal representation increases the fairness of housing justice under the rule of law.”
That’s why one of Teufel’s recent projects was to analyze data in support of state legislation and changes to Supreme Court rules in Delaware, both related to enabling legal services. The Delaware bill would require the state to provide legal representation for tenants facing eviction (i.e., right to representation). Such legislation exists in just three states—Washington, Maryland, and Connecticut—and nearly a dozen cities. The Delaware Supreme Court rule change would allow nonlawyers to provide legal services (i.e., limited reform to unauthorized practice of law). Together, the judicial rule and legislative law changes would not only improve the right to legal help but would enable people to act on the right by increasing the availability of legal services provided by lawyers and nonlawyers.
Teufel and Ben Coleman, professor of computer science, crunched the numbers for a 2021 report prepared for the Community Legal Aid Society (CLASI) and a coalition of Delaware organizations, analyzing the costs and benefits of providing legal counsel to tenants in eviction cases. Currently, only 2 percent of Delaware tenants are represented, while 86 percent of landlords have representation by a lawyer or other adviser.
The report found that the benefits of having counsel were meaningful—not only for the tenants involved but for society at large; for every dollar the state spends on providing representation for tenants, it would save $2.76 on sheltering, rehousing, and other forms of social support.
By Claire Kowalchik 'P22
Nina DePalma ’17, an attorney with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice in Newark, New Jersey, battles injustice in her community every day. DePalma’s specialty is housing, and she works in a city plagued with poverty and bereft of affordable housing.
“The costs of eviction far outweigh the cost of ensuring that the playing field is level and that our landlord/tenant system is fairer,” says Dan Atkins, CLASI’s executive director. “We can’t afford to do nothing.” Recent innovations outside of Delaware are also beginning to support the idea that landlords who operate on a larger scale also benefit from improving housing stability of their tenants and preventing evictions.
Teufel and Atkins, who have worked together on the Delaware bill and Supreme Court rule change along with a coalition of nonprofit agencies, say the disparity in legal counsel and access to legal services generally in eviction cases is just one piece of a much larger inequity—the civil justice gap in the United States.
A person charged with a criminal offense who cannot afford a lawyer is entitled to a public defender, but there is no such provision for those immersed in civil matters, such as orders of protection, job discrimination complaints, or custody proceedings. The United States is also conservative regarding unauthorized practice of law (how law can be practiced), which means that people typically either get help from a lawyer or no professional help at all. This is in contrast to other countries, like the United Kingdom, where there is great role diversification within legal practice.
“We spend more in this country on Halloween costumes for our pets than we spend federally on civil justice,” Atkins says. “We just have not prioritized it.”
“The access-to-justice gap is not one of finances but one of value and values,” adds Teufel.
Teufel notes that the US ranks low—126th out of 139 countries, according to the World Justice Project—in measures of our justice system’s accessibility and affordability. The US ranks equally poorly—122nd out of 139 countries— in ensuring that civil justice is free of discrimination. “We have discrimination and access gaps in our justice system that are worse than not only the richest countries but also most lower-middle- and middle-income countries.”
One solution, he says, is to permit nonlawyers—for instance, paralegals or social workers trained in specific areas of legal practice—to advise and represent people in noncriminal cases. Software programs could also provide legal advice and assist with forms, documents, and legal communications. Both Arizona and Utah are experimenting with such “legal sandbox” approaches, but it will take years to fully scale those strategies within and across states, Teufel says.
Since leaving Moravian at the end of the 2020–21 academic year, Teufel has worked on the Utah and Ontario legal sandbox innovation projects as well as the pending legislation and Supreme Court rules in Delaware; he’s also consulting with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership on ways to improve the nation’s civil justice system.
When he was an undergrad, Teufel began studying mathematical psychology, then realized he yearned to do work with more direct social impact.
“I wandered the earth and lived under a philosophy of trying to work hard and do something that aligned with my interests and values,” he says. To date, he’s worked in research institutes, universities, and nonprofit and for-profit organizations in 30 different states.
While directing the public health program at Moravian University, Teufel hoped to awaken a sense of pragmatic compassion in his students—“a way to examine the world based on reason and common sense...and to realize that helping other people is a positive thing. It is important to develop relatedness and autonomy among students—after that, developing competence is more feasible.”
The bad and good news, he says, is that current inequities—whether in evictions, civil justice, or other realms of human life—were created by people; therefore, people are responsible for changing them. “We have to look at one social policy at a time as we unravel these things that have been in the making for decades. It will take time and effort to undo them.” One simple solution at a time, across time, helps to unravel complex social problems.
Anndee Hochman is a journalist, essayist, and storyteller. Her column, “The Parent Trip,” appears weekly in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and her work has also been published in Poets & Writers, Broad Street Review, Purple Clover, and other print and online venues. She is the author of Anatomies: A Novella and Stories as well as an essay collection, Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community and Home.
On the second floor of the Sally Breidegam Miksiewicz Center for Health Sciences, where their offices were located, Ben Coleman and James Teufel would often run into each other in the hallway and stop to talk about their work. Teufel, associate professor of public health, would lament that his research into evictions in Delaware had run into a wall. Teufel needed data, and the state insisted that it would be too difficult to provide.
Coleman, professor of computer science, offered to join Teufel in a meeting with two of Delaware’s tech employees. Their concern was that it would simply take too much time for the state to provide the information Teufel wanted. Once Coleman explained that the state simply needed to provide a raw dump of data from their database and that he would then work with the data to answer Teufel’s questions, the wall came down. Coleman received court data on evictions in Delaware from 2017 to 2020, and the hard work of data wrangling began.
Data wrangling is the process of creating code to manipulate data into a form that allows you to extract the specific information you want. Teufel would explain what he needed, and Coleman would wrangle it out of the data. But the first step was to define terms.
For example, Teufel wanted to know the length of time to eviction. “But what is eviction?” asks Coleman. “Is it when a judgement is made in favor of the landlord? Or when the constable delivers the eviction notice? Is it when the tenant vacates the property? James and I had to work through careful definitions, and then I wrote the code to process the data and do the measurement.”
Eviction cases are termed landlord/tenant cases, and each of the legal events in a case is represented in a sequence of time-stamped dockets. For example, the ruling in favor of the landlord is one docket. A constable issuing an eviction notice to a tenant is another. “Case satisfied” is the final docket. The cases Coleman and Teufel were analyzing had an average of 15 dockets, each assigned a code.
Coleman had data for 50,000 cases. Multiply that by 15 dockets, and you have 750,000 rows of data. “It is infeasible for a human to analyze that quantity of information,” Coleman points out. He wrote the code to process the data and do the measurements required to answer Teufel’s questions.
“But what if I get it wrong?” adds Coleman. “We all know that errors can occur in coding.” And in this project, Teufel would take Coleman’s findings to the state of Delaware where politicians make decisions on those findings. The consequences of an error could have significant human ramifications. So the next step for Coleman was verification and validation, which involved testing the smaller concepts within the code.
“I love this project,” says Coleman. “It’s been great working with James, and the work is real and impactful, and I’m proud to be a part of it.” But Coleman enjoys an added reward. He uses this project in his data wrangling course at Moravian, where students write their own code using the data. “We talk about how to aggregate and manipulate data, how to work with time math, and how to verify and validate.”
They also learn how this seemingly siloed computer work connects to people’s lives. “This is where I am teaching the liberal arts,” says Coleman. “There are people behind this; what we do with this data matters to their lives.” —Claire Kowalchik P'22
In his Pulitzer prize–winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University, draws readers into the experiences of eight families in Milwaukee who struggle to keep even a dilapidated roof over their heads. He opens our eyes not only to the plight of the poor but the societal dynamics that keep them there. Desmond does not, however, dwell in despair. He also offers ideas for resolving this crisis, which impacts communities across our nation.