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Civil Rights

Sep. 24, 2019

Housing is a human right: A right to counsel for tenants

The Los Angeles City Council is on the verge of enacting our own Right to Counsel Program, providing legal counsel to tenants who cannot afford attorneys and the county Board of Supervisors has approved their version of Right to Counsel.

Skip Koenig

Director of Pro Bono and Policy Advocacy, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County

Andres Rapoport

Staff Attorney, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County


Ben Levine

Class of 2021, UCLA School of Law

Homelessness is the most significant humanitarian crisis our state faces, and it's long past time we treat it as such. Until we acknowledge housing as a human right, we will continue to tinker around the edges of this crisis. To truly address this devastating situation, we must stem the flow of people joining the homeless ranks. And we know the most effective way to do that is to prevent evictions and keep people in their homes.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to our brothers and sisters living on the streets. They are in every one of our neighborhoods, from Boyle Heights to Bel Air; and it's not because they have come here to take advantage of our services and weather. As the most recent homeless count disclosed, 65% of our homeless population have lived in L.A. County for over 20 years.

Despite the fact that voters in Los Angeles approved over $2 billion in funding for housing and services, and our elected officials have taken steps to address the crisis, the number of people falling into homelessness continues to rise, by 12% in the county and 16% in the city in 2018. There are now approximately 60,000 homeless individuals in the county, roughly three quarters of whom spend each night without shelter. We can and we must do better.

Housing as a human right was recognized by the United Nations in 1948 in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States signed on to. The idea of housing as a human right should not be thought of as another theoretical concept, it should be treated like all other human rights enshrined in our Constitution. L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer has said that housing should be considered a right, and that those who need it should be provided a place to live, not just shelter.

The road to providing housing to all is a long one and to achieve this goal we need to take steps along the way to stem the flow of displacement. The best way to do that is to keep people in their existing homes. New York City passed the first Right to Counsel Program in 2017, which went into effect in 2018, providing low-income tenants legal counsel in eviction cases. For funding reasons the program was rolled out in limited zip codes in the first year, and will be expanded city wide over a five year period. Based on the positive result from New York we know that providing tenants with counsel in eviction lawsuits gives them a much greater chance of prevailing and remaining in their homes, preventing them from falling into homelessness. It also has paid for itself by reducing the costs of related services. We know from the results in New York City that 84% of those tenants who were represented by an attorney remained in their homes, that evictions were down 14% city wide, and in those Zip Codes where tenants were provided counsel, they were down 64%.

Having an attorney in eviction cases levels the playing field for tenants and increases the likelihood of avoiding displacement. Gary Blasi, professor of law emeritus at the UCLA School of Law said of legal representation: "Without it, there is simply no justice in [eviction] proceedings. Lots of studies ... demonstrate that tenants representing themselves ... lose nearly 100% of the time."

The Los Angeles City Council is on the verge of enacting our own Right to Counsel Program, providing legal counsel to tenants who cannot afford attorneys and the county Board of Supervisors has approved their version of Right to Counsel. However, once approved, the first phase will be rolled out in a limited number of zip codes based on the amount allocated for the first year. While it is significant that the city and county recognize that the Right to Counsel program is an effective homeless prevention strategy, they also need to acknowledge that having an attorney in eviction cases must be treated as a "Right," guaranteeing all low-income tenants in eviction cases access to an attorney. In order to make the Right to Counsel program robust and keep people housed rather than allowing them to be displaced and adding to our growing homeless population, significantly more funding must be added. We are calling on City Council to set aside $7 million from the recent funding the city has been allocated by the state to kick start Right to Counsel in Los Angeles.

A right to counsel would help thousands remain in their homes each year. If we don't properly fund this effort, thousands more will end up on our streets. 


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