Three LA City Councilmembers want lawyers provided to tenants in eviction court

The Councilmembers pledged support for a Right to Counsel ordinance, providing a lawyer for any tenant that wants to fight an eviction notice.

Councilmembers, tenants’ rights activists, and renters currently in eviction court all advocated for a Right to Counsel ordinance at RTC-LA’s Feb. 1 townhall.

On February 1, the Right to Counsel Los Angeles Coalition hosted a community town hall with 100 in-person attendees and 135 more over Zoom. Councilmembers Nithya Raman, Heather Hutt and Eunisses Hernandez pledged to support legislation that would provide tenants with a lawyer when they want to fight an eviction notice.

A Right to Counsel (RTC) ordinance would give all tenants the right to receive legal representation in eviction court. “When tenants receive an eviction notice, they don’t have a lawyer,” said Raman, Councilmember for District 4. “But who always has a lawyer at court? A landlord.” Even if a tenant cannot afford an attorney, with an RTC ordinance, a lawyer would be provided for them, similar to criminal court.

L.A. would not be the first city to implement this right. “In New York City, when they passed a Right to Counsel, evictions dropped by 27%,” said Raman. “That means 70,000 tenants in the city of New York avoided displacement. Imagine how transformative that would be for the city of Los Angeles.”

According to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, 34,388 eviction cases were filed in L.A. County in 2022 (see below).

Number of LA Superior Court Eviction Filings, divided by area. The 5 areas with the most eviction filings are listed on the right.

When COVID hit, Stay Housed LA (SHLA) — a partnership program between the city of L.A., L.A. County, community organizations and various legal service providers — received funding to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction. However, SHLA was only able to represent 2,000 tenants in L.A. County in 2022. SHLA expects 50,000 eviction cases to be filed in 2023.

Staffers of L.A. County Supervisors Hilda Solis of District 1 and Kathryn Barger of District 5 were also in attendance and said their offices were committed to implementing tenants’ rights protections countywide. A representative of Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez of District 13 explicitly stated that Soto-Martinez will vote for the Right to Counsel ordinance.

Each also promised to work with the L.A. Housing Department to ensure funds from the recently-passed Measure ULA, also known as United to House L.A., would go towards providing eviction counsel and tenants’ rights education. Measure ULA was a 2022 ballot measure that imposed a tax on the sale of megamansions. According to the measure, 10% of the funds generated will go towards “a right-to-counsel program to provide housing-related legal services to Lower Income Household tenants threatened with eviction.” However, City Council must codify RTC separately for this provision to come into effect.

The Right to Counsel Los Angeles Coalition (RTC-LA) was formed in June 2018 and includes non-profit law firms and community activist organizations like ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment) and SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy). The main goal of the Coalition is to see an RTC ordinance passed into law.

Tenants’ rights activists — many of whom are a part of RTC-LA — just enjoyed a huge victory in January after the city council unanimously passed a slate of tenants’ rights protections. Among those protections was Universal Just Cause, which now prevents landlords from evicting a tenant without reason. A landlord must cite one of 14 legally-stipulated just causes for eviction — and have that reason hold up in court.

“I’m very proud of the legislation that we recently passed, which are some of the most robust tenant protections that we’ve seen in this country,” Hutt said.

After that victory, the current makeup of the city council gives the best chance yet for implementation of an RTC ordinance. RTC-LA hopes the protections will prevent an eviction-to-homelessness pipeline that would exacerbate the homelessness crisis and put more people on the street.}

As of now, Raman’s office is drafting the Right to Counsel ordinance. Sergio Vargas, Co-Director of ACCE, estimates the bill should come to the council floor within the month.

Raman said her team had two goals “at the top of their list” when she first took office: “Universal Just Cause — which we just won — and Right to Counsel, which we’re about to win.”

Despite her confidence, Raman cautioned against hubris. “This is not going to be easy. Right to Counsel requires a significant fiscal investment from the city of L.A. for the protection of renters,” she said.

“We have to win more people onto our side,” Raman said, “[and] make the case to them that this is that final piece that’s gonna help us stabilize LA in this suite of tenant protections. That’s really gonna transform this city.”

The town hall also included testimonies from tenants. “I know the feeling of not knowing what to do next, after getting an eviction notice from a court,” said Alma Rocha, a tenant who could not find an eviction defense lawyer. “The eviction process is exhausting and devastating to tenants. It took me almost three months to get help.”

Rocha believes having an attorney assigned to a tenant would provide crucial assistance in navigating the eviction court process.

“To be at peace knowing that a lawyer is fighting for my rental rights … would help so much — to not pick whether to focus on my health or figure out whether I’ll have a roof over my head,” Rocha said.