LA County’s Board of Supervisors recently voted to extend pandemic eviction renter protections one final time. Through the end of March, landlords cannot evict low-income tenants who were financially harmed by COVID-19 and are unable to pay rent.
The board is rightly concerned about the lingering financial impacts of the pandemic on individuals and families who rent. But does this extended protection do enough to shield them?
While eviction moratoria and other measures temporarily protect people from legal eviction, low-income tenants still face the ongoing threat of illegal eviction.
As a new brief from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) demonstrates, these unlawful actions take many forms. Tenants find themselves locked out without notice, have their utilities shut off, face threats and intimidation, or have maintenance and repairs withheld so long that their home becomes uninhabitable.
In a July 2020 survey of 100 legal aid and civil rights attorneys in 38 states, the National Housing Law Project found that 91% of respondents reported illegal evictions were happening in their areas. This included 53% of respondents who said tenants were being illegally locked out of their homes by landlords.
The magnitude of this problem undoubtedly extends beyond the sparse data at hand since instances of illegal eviction are difficult to quantify. Many of the affected tenants will never seek legal help or contact authorities because they are unaware of their rights, don’t have access to attorneys to represent them, or are fearful of the negative consequences of having a recorded eviction.
To combat illegal evictions, we need to ensure that people know their rights and have access to civil legal services.
LA City Councilmember Nithya Raman recently motioned to create a right to counsel program for low-income Los Angeles renters. A right to counsel in eviction proceedings would improve access to justice for low-income people substantially.
Nationally, it is estimated that tenants are represented in court in just 3% of eviction cases, while landlords are represented in 81%. In Los Angeles, a 2019 study found that while 97% of tenants were unrepresented, 88% of landlords were represented by counsel.
A handful of states and several cities have enacted legislation over the past few years that gives tenants a right to counsel. Some localities have low-income eligibility requirements for right to counsel, and others do not. Time and time again, analyses of these programs show a stark contrast in the results that tenants saw in court with and without representation. The studies also show significant savings for these localities from avoided costs related to emergency shelter, housing programs, health care costs and schools.
Put simply: without representation, most tenants will lose their cases and be evicted. Access to representation flips the odds, with a large majority of tenants who receive legal services able to stay in their homes or achieve a “soft landing” – meaning time, and often money, to find new housing and avoid houselessness.
With odds like these, tenants in the vast majority of localities that do not offer any right to counsel are discouraged from seeking due process. Better to cut their losses – losing their home and, in many cases, some of their belongings – than get stuck in a court battle they don’t know how to navigate and can’t afford. Does that sound like justice?
The LSC brief illustrates how legal aid organizations not only provide representation, but also play a crucial role in educating people of their rights through community partnerships, outreach and creating accessible informational platforms.
In addition to extending the tenant protections, the LA County Board directed $45 million in rental assistance for the county’s smaller landlords. Civil legal aid providers will also support landlords who qualify for their services by helping them navigate filing for rental assistance.
Housing insecurity and instability are widespread, and their consequences are deeply felt by low-income people everywhere. While amplified by the pandemic, these problems existed before and will continue to exist long after.
To increase access to justice, we must make the legal system more accessible to low-income people and expand resources for civil legal aid.