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  • Jacklyn Hadzicki

Tenants’ Right to Counsel: Los Angeles Should Follow New York City’s Lead

Cities around the nation are facing housing shortages as the costs of homes soar and the supply of affordable rentals continue to decline.[1]  Rental costs severely burden American households, as “almost half of renter households (21.6 million) spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and 11.6 million households spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent.“[2]  Additionally, 44 percent of rental households have reported “feeling pressure” to move from their homes for a range of reasons, including increased rent, inflation, power imbalances with their landlords, lack of repairs, and threats of eviction.[3]

America’s two largest cities, New York City (NYC) and Los Angeles, provide striking examples of nationwide housing trends as rents have climbed and affordable housing has decreased.[4]  The New York Times found that 80 percent of the households who could not afford the cost of living in NYC had at least one working adult.[5]  In Los Angeles, residents need to make approximately 2.9 times the minimum wage to afford an apartment of the average rent, and “80% of extremely low-income households in Los Angeles County are paying more than half of their income on housing costs.”[6]  Accordingly, eviction is a looming threat for low-income renters in both cities.

Tenants are especially vulnerable in eviction proceedings when they do not have access to legal representation, and the loss of housing is often attributable to a tenant’s lack of counsel.[7]  Providing low-income tenants with free legal representation will not solve the housing crisis but it is a step in the right direction, and Los Angeles should follow New York City’s lead.[8]

NYC became the first city in the United States to guarantee legal representation for tenants facing eviction when it passed its citywide “Right to Counsel” program in 2017.[9]  Before NYC enacted the right to counsel, data from 2013 showed that only one percent of household in eviction proceedings had legal representation[10] compared to landlords who “nearly always” have attorneys.[11]  This gap in access to legal representation exacerbated the power imbalance between renters and their landlords and placed tenants at higher risk of losing stable housing, which is essential to well-being, employment, and positive health outcomes.[12]  NYC’s investment in tenants’ attorneys has proven an important step in saving housing for New Yorkers “with 84 percent of tenants represented by a Right to Counsel lawyer able to remain in their homes.”[13] 

As of 2024, there is no right to representation for renters facing evictions in Los Angeles.[14]  Unfortunately, tenants are at a major disadvantage with “just 10% of tenants hav[ing] legal representation during eviction proceedings, compared to approximately 95% of landlords.”[15]  Having access to a lawyer greatly increases a tenant’s likelihood of staying in their home.[16]  The fast pace of eviction cases makes it extremely important that tenants respond quickly to notices and complaints, but many tenants are uninformed about the eviction process and are not aware of their defenses or rights.[17]  Additionally, the laws that cover Los Angeles County and surrounding areas create a patchwork or protections, making it increasingly difficult for tenants to identify their rights.[18]

Organizations across Los Angeles have addressed the need for attorneys by providing free legal services, but the demand for eviction defense attorneys is much higher than the supply.[19]  As a result, organizations have enlisted methods of community education and eviction self-help courses to assist tenants in their fights to save their housing.[20]

While Los Angeles-based organizations have been a strong example of the power of community networks and tenant education, legal representation remains an absolute must for tenants who are vulnerable and face the risk of homelessness.[21]  The housing crisis in Los Angeles requires an increase in affordable housing, strictly enforced rent control laws, increased tenant protections, and livable wages, but the city must also act to ensure tenants are represented by lawyers at the same rate as their landlords.[22]  New York City’s Right to Counsel has proven to be an effective tool in preventing evictions and preserving stable housing, and Los Angeles must take a similar step to protect its residents and guarantee legal representation.[23]

 



[1] See The State of the Nation's Housing 2023, Hᴀʀᴠ. Jᴏɪɴᴛ Cᴛʀ. ғᴏʀ Hᴏᴜs. Sᴛᴜᴅ., https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/state-nations-housing-2023 (last visited Mar. 11, 2024).

[2] Kathryn Reynolds and Elizabeth Burton, Almost Half of Renter Households Feel Pressured to Leave Their Homes, Uʀʙ. Iɴsᴛ., (Nov. 3, 2023), https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/almost-half-renter-households-feel-pressured-leave-their-homes.

[3] Id.

[4] See World Population Review, The 200 Largest Cities in the United States by Population 2024, https://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities (last visited Mar. 18, 2024); Matthew Calma, Los Angeles & the housing crisis: a history of how we got here, USC Aɴɴᴇɴʙᴇʀɢ Mᴇᴅɪᴀ, (Oct. 24, 2022, 12:14 PM) https://www.uscannenbergmedia.com/2022/10/24/los-angeles-the-housing-crisis-a-history-of-how-we-got-here/.

[5] Eliza Shapiro, Half of NYC Households Can’t Afford to Live Here, Report Finds, N.Y. Tɪᴍᴇs, (Apr. 25, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/25/nyregion/affordable-housing-nyc.html.

[6] Cᴀʟɪғᴏʀɴɪᴀ Hᴏᴜsɪɴɢ Pᴀʀᴛɴᴇʀsʜɪᴘ, Lᴏs Aɴɢᴇʟᴇs Cᴏᴜɴᴛʏ Hᴏᴜsɪɴɢ Nᴇᴇᴅs Rᴇᴘᴏʀᴛ 1 (2023), https://chpc.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Los-Angeles-County_Housing-Report_2023.pdf.

[7] Right to Counsel, The Crisis, https://rtcla.org/the-crisis/ (last visited Mar. 18, 2024).

[8] See, e.g., Brian Bieret, A Right to Counsel in Eviction: Lessons from New York City, Uʀʙ. Jᴜsᴛ. Cᴛʀ. (Dec. 31, 2019), https://housingmatters.urban.org/articles/right-counsel-eviction-lessons-new-york-city (explaining that “tenants subject to [eviction] proceedings historically were ‘blacklisted’ as problem tenants and had trouble finding housing”).

[9] Office of the Mayor, New York City's First-in-Nation Right-to-Counsel Program Expanded Citywide Ahead of Schedule (Nov. 17, 2021), https://www.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/769-21/new-york-city-s-first-in-nation-right-to-counsel-program-expanded-citywide-ahead-schedule.

[10] Id.

[11] New York Civil Liberties Union, Secure the Right to Counsel When New Yorkers Face Eviction, https://www.nyclu.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/2023-nyclu-onepager-righttocounsel.pdf (last visited Mar. 18, 2024).

[12] See id.

[13] Office of the Mayor, supra note 9.  

[14] Right to Counsel supra note 7.

[15] Aileen Qin, Renter Vulnerabilities in Los Angeles, Nᴇɪɢʜʙᴏʀʜᴏᴏᴅ Dᴀᴛᴀ ғᴏʀ Sᴏᴄɪᴀʟ Cʜᴀɴɢᴇ, https://la.myneighborhooddata.org/2021/05/renter-vulnerabilities-in-los-angeles (last visited Mar. 10, 2024).

[16] Right to Counsel supra note 7.

[17] Id.

[18] See Rachel Presser, Your Comprehensive Guide to Los Angeles Rent Control Ordinances, LA Dɪɢs, (Aug. 22, 2023) https://ladigs.com/los-angeles-rent-control/.

[19] David Wagner, City Of LA Estimates It Would Take Five Years, $68 Million To Give Renters Free Eviction Attorneys, LAɪsᴛ, (Nov. 30, 2023, 5:00 AM) https://laist.com/news/housing-homelessness/los-angeles-city-right-to-counsel-eviction-court-lawyers-attorneys-housing-report-landlord.

[20] Stay Housed LA, About Stay House LA, https://www.stayhousedla.org/about (last visited Mar, 18, 2024); see also Eviction Defense Network, Webinars, Workshops & Classes, https://edn.la/webinars-workshops-classes/ (last visited Mar. 18, 2024). 

[21] See Right to Counsel supra note 7.

[22] Right to Counsel supra note 7; see Housing California, Homelessness in Los Angeles County: A Roadmap for Prevention and Solutions by 2030, Roadmap Home 2030, https://roadmaphome2030.org/ (last visited March 9, 2024).

[23] See Right to Counsel supra note 7.

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