Right to Counsel: Step to Liberation

As we all work toward a socialist future, we debate how to get there, and we work for what are known as non-reformist reforms. These are reforms that don’t just patch things up but lead the way toward real change. Recently, some of our comrades have disparaged Right to Counsel, a tenants’ rights campaign that has been successful in many chapters across the country  (including Philadelphia) . Their argument  is that such a campaign isn’t  “very socialist. It’s a defensive demand that is for the benefit of landlords to some degree. It’s building up the system to evict tenants.” As a member of DSA’s Housing Justice Commission, I disagree. As Democratic Left has reported, the housing crisis is severe and a direct result of U.S. capitalism, racism, classism, and sexism.  As one of many ways to confront the issue, Right to Counsel is essential for the following reasons:

  1. Building tenants’ rights campaigns in every city and every state is inherently socialist, in the same way that mutual aid is socialist. Every one of us is struggling under capitalism. Some of us far far more than others. Tenants’ rights campaigns, including Right to Counsel, are one of the ways we work to mitigate that harm, especially for those who t are extremely low-income, BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, or otherwise marginalized. If we do not mitigate the harms of capitalism, our comrades cannot rise out of their oppression to organize with us for a socialist future.
  2. Playing defense does not mean that we cannot also play offense. These tenants’ rights campaigns aren’t just a Band-Aid. They actively work to prevent some of the worst practices of landlords and to build power for our movement. It is important to note that as it stands, only THREE percent of tenants go to court with a lawyer whereas EIGHTY-ONE percent of landlords do. That imbalance nearly guarantees that tenants lose against landlords and  judges who tend to have a strong bias against non-represented parties in any court (a bias one scholar in 2000 called “perhaps inevitable). It speaks to the deep need to ensure that tenants have representation in those settings to ensure they can get the best outcome for themselves.
  3. Right to Counsel campaigns are not helping landlords but stopping them from doing whatever they damn well please, as they do now in most cases, except where tenants have strong rights. And, of course, if such a campaign is winnable, it builds infrastructure in those chapters for the next fight, be it  social housing or any other of a number of campaigns that move the needle towards our socialist housing future. Campaigns build on each other, and thank goodness they do because as much as we’d all like to be living socialist lives right this moment, we have years of work ahead of us before that’s a reality. Finally, even in a socialist future, a judicial system of some kind will be necessary (one can assume that it will be  DRASTICALLY reformed from our current one to include mediation and transformative justice)),In those situations, an imbalance between parties by one having representation and the other not, would be unethical. In the end, a Right to Counsel is a lasting goal that will set up more just systems down the line.

Is Right to Counsel the most socialist campaign that we can pursue? Of course not. It is, as noted above, mitigating harm. It’s not abolishing landlords and rent which are our long-term socialist goals. But that is 100% OK. This is  not an end-goal but an important step along the path to our socialist future. There are many ancillary campaigns that chapters can pursue.  For instance,

  • Right to Counsel does not obviate the desperate need for emergency rental funds that often can be used to help tenants with rent debt and to stay in their homes. These funds are a necessary tool for the lawyers that would be representing people in housing court, to ensure that a tenant can stay in their home and overcome whatever problem led to the rent debt in the first place.
  • Right to Counsel funds lawyers over giving direct assistance to poor people, a common tactic of our current governmental systems. Both are necessary in this case, but we must also actively join in on the direct fight for economic support for our most vulnerable comrades wherever and whenever we can.
  • Right to Counsel does not end the practice of evictions themselves. Evictions are a direct abrogation of a person’s human right to housing and should be abandoned entirely except where the health and welfare of the tenants themselves are at risk. Even when those rare cases are necessary, the tenant should be made whole. 

The Housing Justice Committee is actively training tenant organizers across DSA, building the Policy Toolbox to help housing justice organizers to be better at winning campaigns, and creating important political education resources towards a socialist housing future. I  invite readers of Democratic Left to join in. Together we can build a future that honors housing as an essential human right.