L.A. County considers funding eviction defense for low-income renters

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to consider funding legal representation for low-income renters at risk of eviction.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who has championed rent control measures, recommended analyzing local eviction data and existing legal defense programs with an eye toward implementing some form of legal aid by late 2020.

Kuehl said that in an environment with more than half of county residents living paycheck to paycheck, any unexpected financial crisis could leave families unable to pay rent and ultimately evicted from their homes.

"L.A.'s housing shortage and skyrocketing rents are leading to more and more people being pushed into homelessness," Kuehl said. "We need to use every tool at our disposal to keep people in their homes."

Anticipating the results of a point-in-time homeless count likely to show significant increases, the county has focused more intently on preempting homelessness.

"It is not enough to provide housing and services to the homeless--we must also prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-authored the motion. "This requires expanding our arsenal of tools to better protect low-income residents on the
brink of losing their homes, often through no fault of their own."

Ridley-Thomas did not attend the board meeting. He was in Oakland with Gov. Gavin Newsom, who announced the supervisor's appointment as co-chair of a new statewide task force on homelessness. Romy Ganschow of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles told the county board that eviction defense programs save taxpayer dollars.

"A right to counsel saves money for the county ... (it) reduces the demand for other public services," Ganschow said.

She pointed to a study on eviction conducted for the Philadelphia Bar Association concluding that every dollar spent on eviction defense could generate more than $12 in savings on shelters, hospital visits, mental health services and juvenile justice, among other expenses. Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates of large U.S. cities and an eviction rate much higher than the national average.

The Kuehl-Ridley Thomas motion pointed to the success of the city of New York's eviction defense program, established in 2017, which has helped boost legal representation of low-income tenants by nearly one-third, leading to a sharp decline in evictions.

New York City guarantees legal representation for residents threatened with eviction whose income is 200% or less of the federal poverty level. The board directed staffers to review local eviction data as well as eviction defense programs in other jurisdictions, including San Francisco, to develop recommendations specific to Los Angeles County.

On a related motion, the board voted to track and coordinate services across county departments for people at risk of becoming homeless.

"We know people often seek county social services before becoming homeless," Kuehl said. "For instance, 37% of residents enrolled in county substance abuse treatment are at risk of homelessness. Can't we find ways to provide those men and women with support before they become homeless, so they can stay in their homes?"

An action plan to strengthen homeless prevention measures is expected back in six months.