'Right to Counsel' ordinance: LA County moves to ensure legal services for tenants facing eviction

Wednesday, July 12, 2023
LA County moves to ensure legal services for tenants facing eviction
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to create a so-called "Right to Counsel" ordinance aimed at ensuring legal representation for eligible tenants facing eviction in unincorporated areas.

LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to create a so-called "Right to Counsel" ordinance aimed at ensuring legal representation for eligible tenants facing eviction in unincorporated areas.

The move would essentially codify into law a program the county began in 2020 to offer support services to tenants, including education programs to inform them of their legal rights and to offer income-eligible tenants legal representation and rental assistance.

According to a motion by Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Hilda Solis, since that Stay Housed LA County program began, it has provided limited legal services and assessments to more than 15,700 tenant households, and full-scope legal representation to about 2,400 households. But with COVID-era tenant protections lifting and more residents facing eviction, county supervisors said they want to expand the program to ensure tenants have legal representation if they are facing the loss of their homes.

"The Center for American Progress estimates that nationally, only 10 percent of tenants facing eviction in the County have legal representation, compared to 90 percent of landlords," the motion states.

In a unanimous vote, the board directed its attorneys to return within 10 months with a "Right to Counsel" ordinance, with the goal of ensuring legal representation for eligible tenants in unincorporated areas by the 2024-25 fiscal year. The board also directed the director of the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs to report back in 180 days with a plan for a phased expansion of the program to extend the same legal representation guarantee to eligible tenants in all county areas outside the city of Los Angeles, with the goal of universal access by 2030-31.

While the board approved the advance of the program, the question remains about how it will be funded. A DCBA report earlier this year estimated the cost of implementing a Right to Counsel ordinance at $22 million for the first year alone.

The original Stay Housed LA County program was funded with $2 million in Measure H anti-homelessness funds and another $8.7 million from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The motion notes that county officials will have to work to identify funds to continue and expand the program.

More than 100 people filled the county board room to speak for or against the measure, and testimony took more than two hours. Those in favor of the law spoke of the alleged inequity of the current eviction process.

Elisa Flores, one tenant who testified, said "it is unfair to us ... and there are already enough poor people out on the street."

Fred Zeitlin of the California Apartment Owners Association countered that the eviction problem wasn't the fault of landlords.

"The RTC can't help," he said. "This isn't a legal problem, it is an economic problem."

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said, "This just provides a level playing field for tenants. It is a help for those who most need it."

Victor Rey, a San Fernando Valley businessman, said, "The county simply doesn't have the money to support such a program."

Although the RTC program would primarily apply to residential tenants, Supervisor Janice Hahn stressed that it would also apply to small "Mom and Pop" businesses that rent their premises from landlords.

"Legal representation is often unaffordable and inaccessible for many working people, especially when hit with an eviction notice," Mitchell said in a statement following the vote. "Right to Counsel allows us to remove these barriers and helps thousands of residents maintain their housing. This is a necessary part of our strategy to end homelessness and sets us on a path to provide universal access to legal representation -- a resource that every Angeleno deserves."

The board on Tuesday also unanimously supported strengthening the county's Rent Stabilization and Tenant Protections Ordinance.

"As those who profit from renters find ways to increase their profits, we are meeting the moment with stronger protections that give renters a fighting chance," Supervisor Lindsey P. Horvath said in a statement. "Rent stabilization measures for unincorporated communities are one additional way Los Angeles County is addressing the homelessness crisis with urgency and demonstrating what's possible for all our cities -- an essential partner in solving homelessness. Together, we must make every effort to take homelessness prevention seriously by tackling the issue of inflow head on."

Solis added, "Strong eviction protections are critical in preventing mass displacements. Today's vote on strengthening our Rent Stabilization and Tenant Protections Ordinance will help us avert more people from falling into homelessness -- an issue we are severely grappling with and one we have to address head-on with policy and systems change."

The strengthened protections under the revised Rent Stabilization and Tenant Protections Ordinance, includes a requirement that any tenant in unincorporated areas presented with a voluntary buyout agreement be offered an amount equal to or greater than the relocation assistance amount a tenant would be entitled to under a no-fault eviction.