Six council members filed a motion seeking recommendations by the Los Angeles Housing Department on establishing a Right to Counsel ordinance and program.
"We are trying to build a city where if you end up in a situation where ... if you're in danger of losing your housing, that someone will be there to support you," Councilwoman Nithya Raman said at a rally at City Hall on Tuesday.
Raman appeared alongside council members Bob Blumenfield, Heather Hutt and Hugo Soto-Martinez, with members of tenant groups behind them. Council members Katy Yaroslavsky and Eunisses Hernandez also joined in presenting the motion.
Council members said the program would seek to use funds from Measure ULA, which allocates 10% of revenue generated from the tax to fund a counsel program for lower-income tenants threatened with eviction. According to the text of the ballot measure, a vast majority of the estimated 30,000 tenants who receive eviction notices each year in Los Angeles "do not have access to an attorney and do not know how to exercise their rights."
In municipalities with a right to counsel protection, approximately 86% of tenants remain housed, according to the text of the proposed measure.
Measure ULA passed in November and seeks an additional tax on property sales that exceed $5 million in the city, but is currently facing litigation. The tax is expected to generate between $600 million and $1.1 billion annually, and a majority of the revenue would go toward affordable housing and tenant assistance programs, backers said.
Blumenfield called the measure a "game-changer." The council first sought recommendations for a Right to Counsel program in 2018.
"Finally, we are getting the money that we need to make the right to counsel program work," Blumenfield said. "When you're potentially being evicted, the deck is stacked against you. And we need to change that."
The program, the motion noted, would be "subject to appropriation" of necessary funds.
The council members called for the recommendations to consider:
- Covering tenants making 80% of the area median income or below who are subjected to eviction proceedings;
- Requiring landlords to notify tenants of their right to an attorney;
- Requiring LAHD to educate tenants about their rights;
- Implementing the program on a timeline of five years or sooner, prioritizing the most vulnerable residents.
The council instructed the LAHD to report back in 60 days with how much the program might cost, along with staffing needs.
Tenant groups fear that while tenants have up to a year to pay back rent due after the expiration of the COVID-19 eviction protections at the beginning of February, landlords may still file for evictions, banking on tenants not responding in the requisite five days. Without a response in time, a judge could offer a default judgment allowing the eviction to move forward. Tenants who might not be able to afford or find legal representation could give up and lose their property.
The potential cost to the city of providing free legal counsel to tenants could be offset by not having to spend as much on emergency shelters, housing programs and other services, according to a 2019 report by Stout Risius Ross cited in the council members' motion. The report found that a $34.6 million investment by the city annually could yield $120.3 million in savings on potential costs.
"People need to know that government is going to protect them, and this is the team that's going to make it happen," Hutt said.
A few weeks ago, the council passed several tenant protections that included universal just cause to require a reason for evictions, relocation assistance for tenants who move out due to a large rent increase and a one- month grace period for tenants behind on rent prior to eviction proceedings.
"We made good on our promise," Soto-Martinez said. "We passed three renter protections, but we said this was just the beginning. This will give folks at least an ability to have an even fight -- because we know that when these things happen, people stay inside of their home."
In New York City, nearly three-fourths of tenants faced with evictions have been represented by a lawyer since the city's Right to Counsel law was passed in 2017, and 84% of those being aided by counsel to have been able to remain in their homes, according to a 2021 report by the city's Office of Civil Justice.
"Lawyers are not magicians," Soto-Martinez said. "Lawyers are there to enforce the laws that are on the books. That's all it is."