Los Angeles could be following in the footsteps of San Francisco and New York when it comes to renters' rights and legal representation.
The L.A. City Council is discussing the creation of a program to provide tenants with the right to legal counsel when facing evictions or when there are questions about their rental agreements.
Voters in San Francisco approved a right-to-counsel law in June 2018 and New York City adopted such a law in 2017.
According to a city report, the city is looking into the “feasibility of enacting a right-to-counsel ordinance and/or program to ensure that tenants have access to information and the representation they need when faced with alleged landlord harassment, rental agreement and lease issues, and eviction.”
The 2018 city homeless count found nearly 10,000 people experiencing homelessness for the first time, and the report states that it can be reasonably concluded that the combined impacts of evictions and rental housing affordability are contributing substantially to the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.
“Many of those who are unjustly evicted wind up among our city’s newly homeless,” Councilmember Paul Koretz, who brought the idea to the council, said in a statement. “That’s who we are aiming to help with this proposal.”
Jim Bickhart, a legislative consultant for housing matters for Koretz, said the idea had been floating around and that last fall, a group of UCLA public policy students came to City Hall to discuss affordable housing and homelessness. Koretz was invited to that meeting, at which one of the ideas presented was that maybe the city should be helping tenants deal with the kinds of issues causing them to not be able to afford apartments or that are getting them evicted.
The idea was filed away as work began on other things, and then Bickhart saw that San Francisco had something on the ballot.
“It was a large portion of what the UCLA students had talked about,” Bickhart said, adding that he suggested a proposal to Koretz that the councilman brought to the City Council.
A city staff report on tenants' rights to legal counsel shows that five neighborhood councils provided statements of support, including those in Los Feliz and Highland Park. Bickhart said their support is welcome but was not solicited.
Jon Deutsch, president of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, said it was important to support this, as Los Feliz has many renters.
“We have a lot of different types of renters — [the neighborhood] is far more diverse than people realize,” Deutsch said. “An A-list celebrity could be living near subsidized, government housing.”
Tenants are sometimes pressured or forced to leave their apartments without really understanding what their rights are, Deutsch said.
He added, “I have yet to come across a landlord that doesn't have access to an attorney. I think it’s a pretty straightforward idea that folks facing eviction or a rent increase — everybody should have access to someone who understands that and have a full understanding of their rights.”
While the idea for a program or ordinance is still in its infancy, Deutsch said he thinks “we would embrace a right to counsel and include as many renters as possible.”
Deutsch said he knows “a professional couple whose rent went up 40 percent — now the whole calculus of their lives have changed.” He also noted that some longtime Los Feliz residents had become homeless after having to leave their apartments.
Dan McNamara, a board member on the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, said the group receives a weekly legislative report detailing motions that have been introduced and/or discussed in City Council. He and another board member, Nello DiGiandomenico, independently contacted Deutsch about putting LFNC on record in support.
“As Los Feliz is a neighborhood of majority renters, I would consider protecting the rights of our tenants to be one of our most important tasks,” McNamara said via email. “Abuse in the rental market is especially troubling given the current imbalance in the supply and demand of affordable housing in Los Angeles, and the constant reduction in the availability of rent-stabilized units. Anything we can do to curb bad practices and support our most vulnerable citizens is obviously going to be of interest to the LFNC.”
DiGiandomenico, who drafted the LFNC statement of support and was informed about the tenants' right to counsel idea by a stakeholder, touched on rising rents and the limited amount of rent-stabilized buildings.
“Since many renters do not have the means to counsel, this may give pause to landlords looking to take advantage of the already disadvantaged class of renters in L.A., which could then, in turn, help alleviate the skyrocketing rents that come with high turnover of renters, especially when they are being removed from the extremely limited rent-stabilized buildings,” he said in an email. “Most of us know, if you find a place with decent rents, you’re likely to cling to it because the next move is going to be costly, if not impossible.”
Rocio Rivas, president of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, said she follows City Council motions and also received emails from stakeholders in Highland Park about possibly supporting such a program. Rivas also serves on the HHPNC committee for homelessness.
“I saw that San Francisco did something, and thought, ‘Why not us?’” she said. “We have a lot of renters who are unjustly being evicted, rents are being increased — sometimes three times as high. If it’s being unfairly done to them, how do they help themselves?
“I’m a renter myself, my landlord could easily hike up my rent, and who am I going to turn to? We need to support this, give it a try," Rivas said. "We should’ve had this a long time ago.”
Rivas grew up in Koreatown, and said she doesn’t recognize her neighborhood amid the huge high-rises. She noted that her parents get calls from developers about selling their Koreatown home. Knowing this, Rivas said, she feels action needs to be taken.
“We need to give some people some help,” she said.
Bickhart, the legislative consultant working with Koretz’s office, said they had also reached out to landlords and property management companies.
“For the most part, they were not very enthusiastic,” Bickhart said. “They see it as a vehicle for supporting tenants and making trouble for them."
Bickhart said landlords who are doing things legally have nothing to worry about.
“We want to provide help to tenants who absolutely need it, not to tenants who don't deserve it or are being evicted because they are bad tenants,” Bickhart said. “It would be exactly the thing landlords are worried about.”
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He added, “This is about helping people who are unfairly targeted for eviction for bogus reasons.”
Bickhart said many legal aid organizations won’t work with someone until they receive legal notice; he’d like to see the program provide legal counseling and “fill in the gap between not being in trouble and absolutely being evicted, and provide the tools needed to resolve things with a landlord.”
The plan is for a citywide proposal, and now the work is to determine funding, who will provide the legal support and how many can be served by the program, Bickhart said.
A more concrete plan could be discussed by the end of the year or early 2019.