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Opinion

Editorial: L.A. renters deserve a ‘right to counsel’ for evictions

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 9, 2019 - Beatrice Sandoval held up sign during the LA County Board of Super
A woman holds up a sign in protest at an April L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting.
(Los Angeles Times)

Here’s one way to help ease Los Angeles’ homeless crisis: Give poor, vulnerable tenants lawyers to help them fight unjust evictions. Why? Because it’s often easier, cheaper and more humane to help people stay in their homes than it is to get them back on their feet after they have become homeless.

The Los Angeles City Council is considering a proposal to create a “right to counsel” program to fund legal advice, emergency payments and attorneys to help keep struggling renters in their homes. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is exploring a similar proposal.

Even as a record number of homeless people have been placed into housing over the last few years, there hasn’t been a significant decrease in people living on the street. One reason is that people continue to fall into homelessness, often for the first time, because of a rent hike, landlord dispute or an eviction.

Advocates say that providing taxpayer-funded lawyers helps ensure tenant protection laws have teeth.
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Los Angeles leaders have been looking at programs to prevent homelessness, and a “right to counsel” is a proven model to help keep vulnerable tenants in their homes.

The idea is to level the playing field and ensure tenants have a meaningful chance to defend their rights. Though the law is supposed to protect against wrongful evictions, the complicated legal process is heavily tilted in favor of those who have attorneys — and in the vast majority of cases, landlords have lawyers and tenants do not.

The city estimates there are about 30,000 eviction filings in court per year, and advocates figure about 85% of tenants have no legal representation. Many don’t know how to defend themselves and never show up in court, immediately forfeiting their case.

Los Angeles has strong tenant protections under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, including restrictions on evictions and limits on rent hikes in buildings built before 1978. Yet such laws are toothless if tenants don’t understand these provisions or don’t have legal help to enforce them.

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Some of the most egregious cases never even make it to court. Property owners hoping to oust low-income tenants in order to jack up the rent can resort to harassment and unlawful eviction threats. Nonprofit groups provide some counseling and legal aid to stop illegal behavior, but the demand is far greater than groups can currently meet.

Advocates say that providing taxpayer-funded lawyers helps ensure tenant protection laws have teeth, and they point to New York as proof that it can work.

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The New York City Council adopted a “Right to Counsel” law in 2017 to provide legal services to low-income renters facing eviction. The effect was immediate. Residential evictions decreased by 11% from 2017 to 2018 in ZIP Codes that offered legal assistance. During the same period, evictions increased 2% in similar areas where the aid wasn’t available. Among the households represented by lawyers, 84% were able to stay in their homes. Before the program, tenants who didn’t have an attorney in court ended up being evicted about half of the time.

New York targeted its program to low-income tenants. In San Francisco, voters approved a ballot initiative to create a right to counsel for all renters in the city, regardless of income.

Los Angeles would not create its own legal program, but rather send taxpayer dollars to existing legal aid groups to make services available to all tenants. However, the legal assistance would be free for low-income renters, while higher-income tenants could pay for services on a sliding scale. Offering legal advice to all renters, not just the poorest, discourages scofflaw landlords from ignoring tenant protection laws and can lead parties to reach out-of-court settlements without tying up courtrooms or staff.

Despite the name, the city’s “right to counsel” initiative would not create an entitlement to representation. Instead, it would provide only as much funding for attorneys as city officials decided to provide in any given year.

So, how big should the program be? Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed spending $1 million this year to begin providing free legal representation to low-income renters at risk of being evicted. Others have suggested annual budgets of up to $40 million to provide more services to more Angelenos. While Los Angeles would benefit from keeping more tenants in their homes, city leaders would be wise to focus their dollars on assisting the poorest tenants who are the most vulnerable to the pressures of the real estate market, and the most likely to become homeless through no fault of their own.

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