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Housing and Homelessness
Your guide to renting in this complicated — and expensive — place.

LA Councilmembers Say It’s Time To Give Renters Free Attorneys In Eviction Court

A woman with brown skin tonw and wearing a red jacket stands behind a podium with a microphone. Behind her is a diverse group of people, many of them wearing yellow shirts or holding yellow signs with red markings on them.
L.A. City Councilmember Nithya Raman delivers remarks at a press conference to bolster support for a right-to-counsel program in the city.
(David Wagner
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Six Los Angeles city councilmembers put forward a new proposal on Tuesday to provide free attorneys to many tenants facing eviction.

Housing activists in L.A. have pushed the idea of a renter’s “right to counsel” for many years, but efforts have so far been limited to small pilot programs.

At a press conference outside City Hall with dozens of cheering renters and tenant activists, Councilmember Nithya Raman said new voter-approved homelessness funding through Measure ULA will allow the city to begin exploring a broader right-to-counsel program.

“That's why we're able to get this kind of support behind it,” Raman said, “because people now know where the funding is going to be coming from.”

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Housing advocates say guaranteeing a lawyer to vulnerable tenants would be a game-changer for the city.

“It would completely change the landscape of the eviction world,” said Silvana Naguib, directing attorney of homelessness prevention at the pro bono law firm Public Counsel.

“Without a lawyer, tenants pretty much always have bad outcomes," she said. "Landlords are winning in court because they have better representation, and not because the law is actually on their side.”

Most renters don’t have lawyers. Most landlords do

Unlike in criminal court, renters taken to eviction court have no guaranteed right to free legal representation. Currently, very few tenants are able to hire a lawyer. A 2019 report commissioned by the L.A. Right To Counsel Coalition found that 97% of L.A. renters lacked an attorney in eviction proceedings, but landlords had legal representation in 88% of cases.

LEARN MORE: L.A. Eviction Protections
  • The right-to-counsel proposal comes less than two months before COVID-era eviction protections are set to sunset across L.A. County. Some housing advocates say the March 31 deadline could trigger a wave of evictions across the region.

Only about 1% of renters without an attorney received a judgment in their favor in eviction court, according to the 2019 report. But advocates say right-to-counsel programs in other parts of the country have shown that simply giving tenants an attorney can keep most of them housed.

“The fact that in New York [City], 84% of those represented are able to stay in their homes, guess what, it means that they should have never been evicted in the first place,” said Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez.

Proposal would give program five years to get up and running

Raman introduced the motion, which was co-signed by councilmembers Soto-Martinez, Bob Blumenfield, Heather Hutt, Eunisses Hernandez and Katy Yaroslavsky. The proposal asks the city’s housing department to report back in 60 days with plans for a right-to-counsel program.

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The motion still needs to pass a vote in the full city council before the housing department would begin to work on those plans.

The councilmembers want to see the program specifically cover low-income tenants earning up to 80% of L.A.’s median income. Their motion also seeks to prioritize more vulnerable renters based on criteria such as their ZIP code.

The plan would give the city a long runway to stand up a right-to-counsel program, calling for full implementation within five years.

The 2019 study commissioned by right-to-counsel advocates found that such a program could cost the city around $35 million per year.

The city’s Measure ULA — which passed with nearly 58% voter support in November’s election — was written to set aside 10% of annual program funding for right-to-counsel efforts.

The measure, which taxes property sales of $5 million or more, could bring in an estimated $600 million to $1.1 billion dollars per year. The tax is set to go into effect April 1 — if legal challenges don’t stop it first (a taxpayer group and local landlords contend the measure violates the state constitution).

Other cities with right-to-counsel programs have seen setbacks

Los Angeles would not be the first city to enact a right-to-counsel program. Such efforts have been underway in cities such as New York and San Francisco for years.

New York City created its program in 2017, and quickly saw eviction filings fall by about 30% after most tenants were connected with lawyers.

But New York’s program has strained under a recent spike in eviction cases.

When the city removed COVID protections in early 2022, demand for legal help increased. The number of tenants able to secure a lawyer dropped precipitously to just about 35% in the first week of October. Cases move fast, and there are often not enough lawyers available in New York to quickly connect with renters.

Councilmember Raman said many questions remain for how L.A.’s program should work. The exact amount of available funding is still unclear, for example. But she said the city can’t put off this idea any longer.

“All of this is incredibly important for our homelessness prevention efforts,” Raman said. “We want to preserve our communities. We want to make sure we're not overwhelmed by gentrification and seeing rapid change in our neighborhoods. We want to make sure that people who are here are able to stay here.”

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