Could guaranteed eviction lawyers help LA tenants stay housed?

For years, LA housing advocates have been pushing for public officials to guarantee a right to counsel for those facing eviction. Photo by Shutterstock.

Ever since Patricia Villargra and her husband got an eviction notice last summer, preparing for their jury trial has become her full-time job. 

The couple were already struggling to pay for their small, one-bedroom apartment in Porter Ranch. Villargra had left a job at the airport because of a back injury, and her husband was working long hours to keep up with a recent $400 rent increase, which pushed their rent above $2,500 a month. 

Finding a lawyer that was in their price range — or even one that would defend tenants at all — was out of the question. So, unable to afford another home in the area, they decided to fight back. 

Since then, the couple has spent months preparing their defense on their own, compiling thick binders filled with legal documents and wading through the complexities of tenant law. 

“We're fully doing this by ourselves,” says Villargra. “We tried to contact an attorney, [but] any attorney in Los Angeles who takes cases for evictions, they want to be part of the landlords, they don't want to be part of the tenants.” 

Villargra’s situation is not uncommon in Los Angeles. Eviction lawsuits are tried in civil court so tenants don’t get public defenders like the ones provided in criminal trials — even though losing the case might result in drastic consequences, like homelessness or displacement. For years, housing advocates have been pushing for public officials to reform that policy – to guarantee a right to counsel for those facing eviction. Now, that reality seems to be inching a little closer. 

Tomorrow, Los Angeles City Councilmember Nithya Raman will propose an ordinance asking the city to look into a program to provide lawyers for tenants who can't afford one.

“When you're in court, a landlord always has a lawyer and a tenant almost never has a lawyer historically, here in Los Angeles,” Raman tells KCRW. “It just seemed like one of the most obvious interventions to stabilize such an unstable housing market.”

Over the past several months, Porter Ranch tenant Patricia Villargra has assembled three thick binders stuffed with legal documents and evidence, which she and her husband will use to fight their eviction case in court without a lawyer. Photo by Zoie Matthew. 

The move comes just weeks after Raman and a cohort of newly-elected progressive LA City councilmembers passed a sweeping package of new permanent tenant protections for the City of LA, which require landlords to provide a just cause for all evictions, install a grace period for those who are behind on a certain amount of rent, and require relocation assistance for those displaced by big rent hikes.

The protections were meant to quell the wave of evictions some experts have predicted as COVID-era tenant protections expire. But UCLA public interest law professor Gary Blasi points out that any rights afforded to tenants are meaningless if they can’t use them as a defense in court, because they aren’t familiar enough with existing laws to use them to fight eviction.

“Even though the cases may seem small in the grand scheme of legal affairs, they're actually very complicated, and it takes a good deal of knowledge to be able to provide an adequate defense,” says Blasi.

In a 2004 study, Blasi found that of 151 Los Angeles tenants who represented themselves in eviction trials, not a single one succeeded in winning their case. In fact, Blasi points out, most tenants never even make it to court in the first place. That’s because many don’t know how important it is to respond to their eviction notice — allowing landlords to win by default.

“A tenant has a lot of rights given to them by the state and by the city and by the county, but those rights evaporate six days after a tenant receives a complaint for eviction, unless they're able to get to court and file an answer,” says Blasi. “So, a lawyer would change those things dramatically.”

At a recent town hall, Councilmember Nithya Raman told members of LA’s Right to Counsel coalition that guaranteeing lawyers for tenants facing eviction was at the “top of her list” when she took office. Photo by Zoie Matthew. 

In 2017, New York became one of the first cities to pass a law guaranteeing a right to counsel for tenants. After it was implemented, about 84% of those who received a lawyer were able to stay in their homes. Since then, a push for similar laws has spread rapidly to jurisdictions across the US. 

According to John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, about 15 different cities and three states have now passed their own versions of that law. Many are seeing better trial outcomes for tenants — and even decreases in eviction filings overall, he says. “The rate at which tenants retain their units is really up. And in many jurisdictions, the tenants who don't want to stay in their units, or perhaps can't, are getting more time to move, they're getting the evictions kept off the record, they're paying less in arrears.”

In LA, a coalition of housing advocates and legal service providers has been urging officials to pass a similar law since 2018. Before the pandemic, they were getting pretty close to making it happen, says Pablo Estupiñan, director of LA’s Right to Counsel Campaign. But COVID funding concerns got in the way, and LA county officials instead launched the tenant outreach and education program Stay Housed LA.

“It's a program, it’s not a right to counsel. It was never intended to guarantee every tenant legal representation in eviction cases,” says Estupiñan.

Stay Housed LA offers workshops and webinars, and enough funding for about 3,300 people to get lawyers each year. Still, that’s just a fraction of the more than 50,000 eviction cases program leaders expect to see in 2023.

For those who have been able to get free lawyers, like single father Ryan Curry, that representation can make a huge difference. 

Curry, 47, suffered from a number of health problems three years ago that left him unable to work. While he waited on his disability payments to arrive, his apartment was sold to a new landlord who illegally raised his rent, and then promptly tried to evict him. He feared that if he didn’t fight back, he and his 9-year-old son would wind up unhoused.

Ryan Curry, a 47-year-old single father facing eviction, was assigned Attorneys Daniel J. Bramzon and Gustavo Arceo-Gonzalez from the legal aid provider BASTA Universal through the Stay Housed LA program. His case was ultimately dropped. Photo by Zoie Matthew. 

“I have no place else to go, I have no money to relocate with. It wouldn't be my choice to fight in court right now, [but] I've got medical issues and a son that needs me. I didn't want to be in this position,” says Curry.

After applying to a number of legal aid programs, Curry was assigned two lawyers from the nonprofit legal aid provider BASTA Universal. They were able to help him untangle LA’s complex web of tenant protections, and put together defenses he didn’t know he had. In the end, the case was dropped altogether. 

“I'm fortunate that I was able to qualify for their assistance. Because to be honest, not much else has gone my direction, you know?” says Curry.

Housing advocates hope more Angelenos will see outcomes like this, if a full right-to-counsel law is enacted. However, even if they are approved, these laws will probably take years to roll out. That’s in part because they would require a lot of money, and a lot of lawyers. 

“We're talking about going from about 50 attorneys to 400 attorneys to fully meet the needs of the county,” says Estupiñan of the Right to Counsel Coalition.

Raman’s ordinance, if passed, would likely rely on funding from Measure ULA, a city tax measure passed last year — but that ordinance is currently facing legal challenges.

County officials are also looking into the feasibility of expanding Stay Housed LA’s legal aid capacities, but no specific funding source has been identified for that. 

In the meantime, as tenants brace for a wave of post-COVID eviction notices, some are taking matters into their own hands. Tony Carfello, an organizer for the Los Angeles Tenants Union, says union members are helping their neighbors file eviction answers with an online toolkit, sharing trial experiences, and showing up to support each other in court.

“So many members of the Tenants’ Union have been through these processes, and they talk about what they know,” says Carfello. “Then that person hears about their neighbor going through the same thing — they send them right to us, too.”

Tenant lawyer Elena Popp, who founded the nonprofit Eviction Defense Network, stands outside of Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Downtown LA. On some days, she represents a dozen or more tenants in court. Photo by Zoie Matthew.

When housing rights attorney Elena Popp isn’t hopping from courthouse to courthouse defending tenants, she runs zoom webinars through her nonprofit Eviction Defense Network that help hundreds prepare for trial.

“At first, I was horrified by having to serve people this way,” says Popp. “But what I'm finding is that we're teaching people how to fish. And now we're teaching them how to cook pescado a la veracruzana. In other words, we're teaching them how to cook that fish, and it's really delicious, right? And that's a good thing. It's a good thing for their case. And it's a good thing for their lives.”

As for Patricia Villargra, the Porter Ranch tenant, she started attending Popp’s webinars a few months back after learning about them through the Tenants Union. Last week, her husband, whose name is on the lease, had to make his second court appearance. Watching him present the defense they’d worked so hard on, Villargra says she felt incredibly proud.

“My husband was so kind, he was so polite, but at the same time, he was so sharp. And then he was showing his binder. And he said, ‘I have all my evidence right here,’” says Villargra. 

The plaintiffs showed up without any evidence and asked for the trial to be postponed until March. In the meantime, Villargra says she’s now helping another defendant she met at court prepare for her own eviction trial.