DOWNTOWN LA — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took up the issue of tenant protection at their Tuesday meeting, unanimously approving various protections, including making the “Stay Housed LA” program permanent, and providing tenants in unincorporated LA County with legal representation.

In March, the local state of emergency and eviction protections ended, which had been keeping many renters in their homes. At Tuesday’s meeting, the Board voted to provide tenants in unincorporated LA County who are fighting evictions, with legal representation, free of charge.

Housing advocates believe such legal representation is crucial for preventing mass evictions and keeping more Angelenos from becoming unhoused. In California, eviction courts refer to a landlord suing a tenant in an attempt to evict them as “unlawful detainers.” Tenants have a vastly higher chance of fighting an unlawful detainer — and actually winning — when represented by an attorney. Although the Board voted to create this program to serve unincorporated communities, they said they hope to extend this service to other areas of the county, and also hope individual cities might see the county program as a model.

“People are falling into homelessness faster than we can house them,” said Supervisor Lindsey Horvath (Third District). “We must keep people in the housing they already are in if we are going to tackle this state of emergency.”

In a report that analyzed eviction data based on 4,200 unsealed LA Superior Court proceedings, approximately 97% of tenants had no lawyer in court, while landlords were only unrepresented in 12% of cases. The report was prepared by Stout (a private consulting firm) for the LA Right to Counsel Coalition, which is made up of tenants, housing advocates, and legal service providers. And of course that lack of legal representation very often leads to defeat in court. Additionally, Black and Latino tenants experience the highest rates of eviction in the county. 

At the meeting, dozens of tenants gave public comment and shared personal stories of being unable to pay rent and of being harassed by landlords. Some tenants also described the anxiety they felt while going through the eviction process. They also pointed out their inability to exercise their right to a day in court, because they were unable to afford an attorney.

“Some of us can barely afford to pay the high rent with our income, much less will we be able to pay for a lawyer,” said Edgar Valencia, a tenant in LA County.

In 2020, the county launched the Stay Housed LA program in partnership with the city of Los Angeles, community based organizations, and legal service providers. Organizations such as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) host workshops where they inform tenants about their rights under state and local laws and the eviction process. Tenants can also receive legal advice about their cases or situations by completing a form on the website or attending a workshop.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the supervisors made the Stay Housed LA program permanent and also extended it to include giving tenants who have received an unlawful detainer in unincorporated LA County free legal representation. Although the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (DCBA) is still determining the program’s eligibility criteria, Rafael Carbajal, DCBA director who was present at the meeting answering questions, says the program is aimed at tenants making 80% of the area median income (AMI) or lower.

An eviction isn’t a single event but a whole legal process, deployed by landlords to kick tenants out. A landlord must provide a tenant advance notice to take action on something the landlord believes is a reason for eviction — such as a tenant not paying their rent. Legally, if the tenant fails to take action during the allotted time, the landlord is then entitled to file a specific kind of lawsuit called an “unlawful detainer.” Once the unlawful detainer has been filed the tenant has five days to answer, otherwise a default judgment is made against them generally resulting in eviction.

Victor Velasco is an eviction defense paralegal at Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm and part of the Stay Housed LA program. He says that it can take tenants a long time to connect with an attorney, and to understand their rights and the eviction process. Too often, by the time a tenant finally gets connected with an attorney to fight their eviction, a judge will have already made a default decision, ordering the LA County Sheriff’s Department to forcefully remove the tenant from their home.  

“Tenants are wrongfully being evicted,” said Velasco.

More on renter protections

The program won’t immediately go into effect. The supes ordered the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (DCBA) to draft an ordinance within 10 months — leaving the DCBA the discretion to determine eligibility criteria in the ordinance. The DCBA will also be reporting back to the Board on a plan to extend this program to tenants across the county by fiscal year 2030-2031.

Carbajal pointed out that DCBA is working with independent cities such as Long Beach and Maywood on ways they can participate in the program in the future. He mentioned the department is looking for more funding and encouraging the cities to consider funding through their own budgets. 

The Board also asked county departments to look into legal advice and representation programs for mom-and-pop landlords. Hahn added an amendment  — that passed —  at the meeting to include mediation, which she believes can help solve disputes between landlords and tenants. 

The Board also voted to update the county’s rent stabilization and tenant protections ordinance, which is a local law that sets the maximum annual rent increase based on inflation and provides tenants protections from evictions without just cause in unincorporated areas. Among the updates, landlords will be required to give tenants more relocation assistance. Landlords will also be required to provide specific details when they give tenants notices of termination of tenancy if they believe the tenant violated a term in their rental agreement. Notices must include specific facts such as dates, places, witnesses, and circumstances, for tenants to have a better understanding of alleged violations. County departments will be reporting back with amendments in 90 days.

Ashley Orona is a journalist and community organizer from South Central Los Angeles. She loves spending time with her family, supporting local businesses, and finding new scenic views around LA.