Tenant activists are urging Los Angeles leaders to make sure that renters facing harassment or eviction can turn to a lawyer for help.
At a news conference Thursday outside City Hall, a coalition of tenant advocates and community activists pressed for the city to move forward with a “right to counsel” ordinance and called on Mayor Eric Garcetti to allocate $10 million to assist tenants in his upcoming budget.
That money would go not only to legal aid, they said, but also to education, outreach and emergency payments to help keep struggling renters in their homes.
“This is such a dire need right now,” said Chancela Al-Mansour, executive director of the Housing Rights Center. “Without representation, tenants have almost no hope of winning” in court.
The City Council has already voted to explore the idea, asking city staff to come up with recommendations for a new law. But since that August vote, there have been no further hearings at City Hall on the idea.
Activists want the city to guarantee tenants the right to an attorney and subsidize legal services for poor renters who could not otherwise afford them — a system similar to providing public defenders for people accused of crimes. Better-off renters would pay for services on a sliding scale, advocates said.
That legal assistance should begin well before a tenant faces an eviction, said Greg Spiegel, director of strategic initiatives for Inner City Law Center.
“The earlier that interventions happen, the more likely they are to result in stabilized housing, and to require fewer resources,” Spiegel said.
L.A. would not be the first city to enshrine such a right.
New York City billed itself as the first city across the country to pass a “right to counsel” law, committing to provide legal assistance to poor residents facing eviction. San Francisco voters also passed a ballot measure last year to ensure legal representation for all residential tenants facing eviction.
Tenant groups say those programs have shown results. An analysis by the nonprofit Community Service Society found that tenants in the ZIP codes first targeted under the New York City program were more likely to have an attorney in housing court and that evictions had declined more dramatically than in the rest of the city.
The Los Angeles Renters’ Right to Counsel Coalition wants to start rolling out services in L.A. neighborhoods with the greatest need, then expand the program across the city by 2024. Spiegel said that there are several possible sources of state funding for the initiative, but argued that it would ultimately save the city money by preventing people from falling into homelessness.
The Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, which represents landlords, has raised concerns about the idea of a right to counsel. In a letter to council members, its government affairs director Janet Gagnon argued that the proposed law “only serves to make eviction defense attorneys rich on the taxpayer’s dime and … draw out already long and difficult eviction processes.”
Gagnon said that if the city has money to spare, it should go into emergency rental assistance, not legal aid that could end up stalling justified evictions.
“Where is the equality in this policy?” she asked in her letter. “There is zero mention of providing a free attorney to small mom and pop owners that are financially unable to hire their own attorney to evict tenants that refuse to pay the rent … or that are dealing drugs or causing other problems.”
In front of City Hall on Thursday, Teresa Altamirano recounted her battle with her landlord, who she said had tried to evict her twice from her Pico-Union home.
The single mother of three, who sells flowers as a street vendor, counted herself lucky to have found an attorney to help her, but estimated she had to spend roughly $800 for legal representation in each case.
“It was almost as much as my rent,” she said in Spanish.
Free legal assistance is available to tenants through some programs and nonprofits, but they don’t have the capacity to meet all of the need, said Andrew Chen, a staff attorney with Bet Tzedek, which represents low-income tenants. At many courthouses, he said, “the judges are actually surprised to see an attorney who’s representing a tenant.”
When asked about the “right to counsel” push, Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar said in a statement that the mayor “is supportive of this concept and looks forward to continuing the discussion about it with stakeholders and his colleagues on the City Council.”