Fewer Renter Protections Will Mean More Unhoused Angelenos. A Right to Counsel Can Help

April 19, 2023

By Pablo Estupiñan, Director, Right to Counsel Campaign

SAJE will host a Town Hall on the Right to Counsel on May 3, 2023, at 6:00 PM. You can attend in person or join via Zoom to learn about the proposed ordinance, tenant rights in Los Angeles, and what you can do to support the Right to Counsel campaign. To register, e-mail Pablo Estupiñan at pestupinan@saje.net

In December 2022, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness as her first act in office, launching a set of programs and strategies to increase temporary and permanent affordable housing for unhoused Angelenos. These strategies are meant to address a grave crisis that has long been in the making: according to the Los Angeles Homelessness Authority (LAHSA), there are now nearly 70,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles County, in large part because we have not preserved and built enough affordable housing to accommodate all who live here.

But the crisis could be much worse. The number of unhoused Angelenos has increased by only 4.1% since 2020. LAHSA attributes the flat growth (between 2018 to 2020, there was a 25% increase) to the city’s temporary emergency tenant protections, which prevented evictions during the pandemic. According to Molly Rysman, the agency’s acting co-executive director, “​Tenant protections and rental assistance helped people stay in their homes and out of homelessness…. If these policies end, it is entirely possible that future homeless counts could show significant increases.”

Unfortunately, as of last month, most of the emergency tenant protections have ended. (Tenant rights advocates in the City of Los Angeles were able to make several of them permanent, but not all.) Meanwhile, eviction rates are already back to pre-pandemic levels. Eviction cases will rise as deadlines for paying back rent accumulated during the pandemic come due. According to the National Equity Atlas, the total rent debt in California is now approximately $2.1 billion, with the average household owing more than five thousand dollars, higher than the national average. The city is already struggling to find housing for the tens of thousands of Angelenos who live on our streets. What happens when those numbers increase significantly due to a rise in evictions? 

We may not have to find out if the city acts now to pass a renter’s Right to Counsel (RTC). A motion requiring LAHD to report back on the feasibility and cost of a proposed ordinance is currently in progress. If approved, an RTC ordinance would guarantee renters who make below 80% of the area median income an attorney if they have to appear in eviction court. RTC would also help connect tenants to rental assistance. Now that emergency protections have ended, RTC is one of the most important and effective tools the city has to ensure Los Angeles’ housing and homelessness crises don’t get much worse just as we are starting to fix them.

Similar ordinances have been passed in 18 U.S. cities and states, including New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Detroit. Research has shown that codified and funded RTC programs significantly drive down the number of evictions filed and the number of default judgments against renters. In New York, evictions decreased by 41% between 2013 and 2019, with a 15% percent reduction in 2019 alone. Between 2017 and 2019, 84% of New York City tenants who received legal representation in eviction court were ultimately able to stay in their homes. This meant fewer renters were driven into homelessness, and fewer units were released from rent-control restrictions because of evictions. RTC is also a more effective use of public money. A 2019 Los Angeles report found that for every dollar invested in RTC, nearly $3.48 will be saved by preventing people from falling into homelessness and the costs associated with it, including shelters, hospitalizations, policing and street sweeps, and incarceration. 

What’s more, with the passage of Measure ULA in November 2022, we have the funds to make RTC a reality. The Right to Counsel Coalition estimates that a fully funded RTC program will cost around $80 million annually. Measure ULA, which is specifically designed to create affordable housing solutions, is estimated to generate more than $900 million per year for affordable housing initiatives and renter protections in Los Angeles. 

The COVID-19 emergency renter protections have expired. Los Angeles must act now to pass a RIght to Counsel to ensure vulnerable renters don’t lose their homes. The city’s ability to solve the homelessness crisis depends on it.

To get involved in the Right to Counsel Coalition, click here.