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L.A. to spend $10 million on eviction defense, $50 million on new programs for poor

A pro-tenant demonstrator marches in downtown Los Angeles in June.
A protester marches with the L.A. Tenants Union in downtown Los Angeles in calling for rent cancellation, protections against landlord harassment and shelter for homeless people in June.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles plans to spend nearly $10 million on a new program to help tenants threatened with eviction defend themselves in court, along with an additional $50 million to help poor residents amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The City Council voted Tuesday to create an “emergency eviction defense” program in the face of warnings that renters could be at risk of losing their homes as state courts go back to processing eviction cases.

Although California lawmakers just passed new protections for tenants, L.A. officials said they were still untangling how those state rules affect local eviction restrictions passed months earlier by the city. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said his staff and city attorneys were still examining the implications of the state law, but said he was concerned that it could override some local protections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued its own order Tuesday blocking evictions for tenants earning under $99,000 annually, which city lawyers are analyzing as well.

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Housing officials are supposed to report back in a week with more details on the planned L.A. program, which will be funded with up to $8 million from federal block grants and nearly $2 million previously set aside for a renters relief program.

Long before the pandemic, tenant activists had pushed for L.A. to put millions of dollars into a “right to counsel” program that would include legal aid, education, outreach and emergency payments to keep renters in their homes. The city identified roughly $3 million last year to launch such a program, but had yet to move forward with those plans.

Ahead of the vote, some Angelenos expressed frustration the council had not moved sooner.

“You’ve waited until the last minute to slap something together,” said Rob Quan, an organizer with the anticorruption group Unrig LA. “It’s really just kind of consistent with City Council’s pattern of doing enough to get the headlines, getting none of the details right — and it all taking a year or two too long.”

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Councilman Paul Koretz, who had proposed establishing a right to counsel ordinance two years ago, said that years of work on the eviction defense program “makes being able to launch an emergency version immediately possible.”

Tuesday’s decision “will allow the program to be jump-started” while L.A. continues to work on a broader program for providing legal assistance to tenants beyond the pandemic, Koretz said.

Javier Beltran, deputy director of the Housing Rights Center, urged the council to treat the $10 million as “a down payment to greater and more permanent tenant protections,” warning that hundreds of thousands of households could be facing eviction and likely homelessness across L.A. County as renters face the economic effects of the pandemic.

After COVID-19 hit, Los Angeles officials imposed restrictions on evicting tenants affected by the pandemic. Council members narrowly voted against a broader ban on evictions after the city attorney’s office argued it was legally dicey. Critics complained that tenants affected by the pandemic would still have to prove that defense against an eviction in court.

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For months, state courts had stopped processing eviction cases, but are slated to start again this week.

California lawmakers passed a measure Monday to protect some tenants through January, but advocates said struggling renters could still need help from attorneys even if they are covered by its protections.

“We are likely to see confusion both on the part of landlords and tenants about what protections apply to them — and likely to see some group of landlords trying to circumvent” the new law, said Sasha Harnden, a public policy advocate with Inner City Law Center.

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L.A. officials also raised concerns about whether some of the city’s specific restrictions on evictions could be undermined by the state law. During the Tuesday meeting, O’Farrell listed key parts of the L.A. ordinance — including the amount of time that tenants have to repay their landlords — and concluded, “All of these protections are now in question.”

The council voted 12-0 to allocate the money for the eviction defense program, with Councilmen Paul Krekorian and Curren Price recused from the vote. Housing department officials estimated that between 5,000 and 7,000 households would initially benefit from legal representation, but said they expected the program to assist additional people as the city expanded its education and outreach.

Council members also voted Tuesday to devote up to $50 million in federal funds to new programs meant to assist poor households, including a “right to recover” program that would replace wages for people who test positive for COVID-19 and need financial aid. San Francisco launched such a program earlier this summer.

In addition, L.A. is exploring a broader “paycheck assistance” program that would provide supplemental income to poor households left out of federal programs. City staffers are supposed to report back with more details on both programs, which will be funded by federal money earmarked for COVID-19 relief.


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