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Tenants facing evictions should get legal representation, LA councilmembers say

Several Los Angeles city councilmembers are calling for a tenants’ Right to Counsel program to provide free legal representation to lower-income Angelenos facing evictions who can’t afford an attorney.

A motion introduced by Councilmember Nithya Raman on Tuesday, Feb. 14, directs the city’s housing department to report back to the council within 60 days with recommendations to create a program for tenants earning 80% or less than the area’s median income. The report is expected to include estimates for staffing needs and costs.

“We are trying to build a city where, if you end up in a situation where you lose your housing or you’re in danger of losing your housing, that someone will be there to support you,” Raman said at a press conference ahead of Tuesday’s council meeting.

“We want to show people through this effort that you are not alone. This city loves you, and it wants you to stay here.” Raman chairs the City Council’s Housing and Homelessness Committee,

Five councilmembers – Bob Blumenfield, Hugo Soto-Martinez, Heather Hutt, Eunisses Hernandez and Katy Yaroslavsky – signed on as co-presenters of the motion.

Hutt said that as a single mother raising three sons, she needs “all the help I can get.”

“People need to know that government is going to protect them,” she said.

Approximately 30,000 eviction notices are filed each year in L.A., but when tenants can’t afford an attorney, the eviction notices often go uncontested even if they’re illegal, tenant rights advocates say.

The purpose of a Right to Counsel program would be to promote housing stability and keep Angelenos from falling into homelessness in a city where a staggering number of people living on the streets has become a local emergency.

Advocates point to other large cities that have Right to Counsel programs and say that’s one reason L.A. should too.

in New York City, 74% of tenants facing evictions have legal representation, and 84% of those who are represented in court by attorneys provided by the city got to stay in their homes, according to the council motion filed Tuesday.

In San Francisco, which has had a Right to Counsel policy since 2018, two-thirds of tenants are represented by attorneys, and 67% of those who got full representation were able to remain in their homes, according to the motion.

Rebecca Acosta, a member of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, or SAJE, said during Tuesday’s news conference that she receives Section 8 housing vouchers and is being harassed by her apartment manager to leave.

L.A. City Councilmember Nithya Raman speaks in support of a tenants’ Right to Counsel program on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. She and others are calling for the city to provide legal representation to lower-income tenants facing evictions who can’t afford their own attorneys. (Photo by Linh Tat, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

“We need a new right to counsel, a right to representation in court for evictions,” Acosta said. “It’s unfair to make people homeless for lack of legal representation.”

But later, during the City Council meeting, Fred Sutton of the California Apartment Association said money should instead be invested in a permanent rental subsidy program to avoid possible evictions in the first place.

“We should fund prevention, not lawyers,” Sutton said. “Direct rental assistance dollars would go further, prevent the need for (legal) representation, and is the most effective tool we have to achieve our shared goals of housing in Los Angeles.”

Advocates for a right to counsel program say it would save the city money over the long term. A study prepared for The Los Angeles Right to Counsel Coalition suggests that investing $34.6 million each year to provide free legal counsel to tenants could save the city about $120.3 million in emergency shelters or homeless services – a savings of about $3.48 for each dollar spent.

As part of the motion introduced this week, landlords would be required to inform tenants of their right to counsel when signing their lease, and as part of any lease termination notice. The city’s housing department would also engage with community groups to educate tenants about their rights, under the proposed motion.

The proposed Right to Counsel program in L.A. would be paid for through Measure ULA, a tax on the sale of real estate properties valued at $5 million or more that voters passed in November.

Measure ULA is projected to generate $600 million to $1.1 billion each year, with dollars going to affordable housing and tenant assistance programs. Ten percent of the revenues each year will be set aside to fund a Right to Counsel program. The tax is supposed to go into effect in April, though it is facing a legal challenge.

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The push to provide lower-income tenants with free legal aid is the latest in a series of policies that some members of the City Council have advocated for to strengthen tenant protections, especially since the city ended a COVID-19-related eviction moratorium that prevented those who couldn’t make rent payments during the pandemic from being kicked out of their homes.

The council recently voted to require landlords to cite a “just cause” before they can evict tenants who previously did not have just-cause protection, allow tenants behind on rent payments to remain in their apartments for a month unless they owe more than one month’s worth of fair market rent, and require landlords to pay relocation assistance to tenants who move out due to steep rent hikes.

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