“Not a fair fight”? ULA tax could fund right to counsel for tenants 

Mayor’s budget sets aside $25M for tenant eviction defense

Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles's Dan Yukelson and Councilmember Nithya Raman
Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles's Dan Yukelson and Councilmember Nithya Raman (LinkedIn, Twitter/@cd4losangeles, Getty)

Los Angeles housing advocates have pushed the idea for years. 

But now, thanks to a newly progressive City Council and the city’s new transfer tax, it could finally come into view: A right to free legal counsel for Los Angeles tenants facing eviction. 

“We are trying to build a city where — if you end up in a situation where you lose your housing,  or you’re in danger of losing your housing — that someone will be there to support you,” L.A. City Councilwoman Nithya Raman said at a press conference in February. “We want to show people through this effort that you are not alone.” 

The gestating L.A. program is part of a national tenant-centered movement. In 2017, New York passed the country’s first right to counsel law for tenants, with the goal of leveling the playing field in housing court, because most landlords have attorneys while the tenants they’re seeking to evict usually can’t afford them. 

That law originally provided free lawyers to tenants only in several low-income zip codes but was then expanded city-wide in 2021. In the years since, more than a dozen other cities, including Chicago and San Francisco, have launched their own programs. 

After years of stalled efforts in L.A., city politicians took up the issue again in February, when Raman and five other progressive councilmembers filed a motion seeking recommendations from the city housing department on a possible program, effectively setting the legislative wheels in motion. 

That motion came after an energetic tenant rally outside City Hall, where Raman — a professional urban planner who has emerged as one of the city’s loudest voices for tenant rights — delivered a speech and emphasized the source of the money that would fund L.A.’s program: Measure ULA, the city’s signature new transfer tax, which also happens to be reviled by much of the rental industry and currently faces legal challenges. 

“That’s why we’re able to get this kind of support behind it,” Raman said that day outside City Hall, “because people now know where the funding is going to be coming from.” 

Advocates of the initiative in L.A. cite statistics that they argue reveal a vast need for the program, including a 2019 report commissioned by a pro-Right to Counsel group that found that 88 percent of L.A. landlords had attorneys in eviction cases while 97 percent of tenants didn’t. 

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“That’s not a fair fight,” Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez, another proponent, wrote on Twitter.

The report found that only 1 percent of those tenants without attorneys received favorable judgments, while tenants who have had free representation under other cities’ programs have fared much better. In San Francisco, nearly all represented tenants “were able to remain in their homes or reach a favorable move-out agreement,” it says. 

Many landlords see things differently, arguing that the Right to Counsel idea — which effectively provides free legal representation to only one side in a civil dispute — amounts to yet another example of a tenant-centric political culture in which politicians are rewarded for scapegoating property owners. The majority of landlords, emphasizes Dan Yukelson, executive director of the landlord advocacy group Greater Los Angeles Apartment Association, are moms and pops who themselves are often financially strapped, and the majority of eviction cases come as a result of tenants’ nonpayment. 

“The whole idea behind Right to Counsel was that landlords are seeking illegal evictions, trying to force tenants out to raise the rent, but that isn’t what’s happening,” he said. 

Yukelson added that he could, however, get behind an idea where both parties have the same free legal right. 

“If a tenant is really being evicted for an illegal cause and they have no other means to afford an attorney, then sure,” he said. “But the same should be true for landlords, if the tenant is clearly using the system against the landlord to extract free rent.” 

In March, several weeks after Raman’s initial motion, the full L.A. City Council unanimously approved it, giving the housing department 60 days to report back to the council with more details. That report is still pending, a member of Raman’s office said, although another clear sign of support emerged last week, when L.A. Mayor Karen Bass released her first budget proposal. 

Inside the mayor’s $13 billion budget was $150 million in funding from Measure ULA, including $25 million for tenant eviction defense — aka Right to Counsel. 

Even if Measure ULA ends up being overturned in court, the city is counting on reimbursing that $150 million from FEMA funds, the mayor has said. Bass’ office did not respond to an interview request.

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