As the Long Beach City Council prepares to approve a budget for the 2024 fiscal year, tenant advocates are pushing to nearly double the amount of money allocated for a right-to-counsel program that would provide tenants facing evictions with lawyers.
In his proposed budget, Mayor Rex Richardson suggested adding $1 million to the city’s right-to-counsel program, which is managed by Los Angeles County in partnership with the nonprofit Stay Housed LA, for the upcoming year.
But advocates want the city to up that proposal to $1.9 million, which they say would cover the amount of work eviction lawyers would be expected to tackle in the coming year, given the thousands of evictions filed in LA County over the past few months.
Since Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 emergency expired at the end of March, which also brought an end to an array of beefed-up protections for renters countywide, filings for evictions in LA County have been steadily climbing, with almost 4,500 filed in June, said Barbara Schultz, the director of housing justice for Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, who heads the program for Stay Housed LA.
The nonprofit law firm is staffing LA County and LA city’s right-to-counsel programs as well as Long Beach’s, but Schultz said it can’t keep up with the rate of eviction filings.
While most landlords have legal representation at eviction proceedings, the majority of tenants do not. Entering into a complex legal proceeding like an eviction hearing can have serious consequences for untrained tenants, including having a judgment issued against them that can limit their opportunities to rent in the future.
“We see it as an equal access issue,” Schultz said.
But Fred Sutton, senior vice president of public affairs for the California Apartment Association, pushed back against that argument. He said that right-to-counsel programs rarely keep people in their homes long-term and merely prolong the eviction process while a settlement can be reached.
There’s also no guarantee tenants will win their cases, Sutton said.
“That means we’re funding losing cases,” he said. “Why would we do that?”
Schultz, though, noted that the presence of a right-to-counsel program typically results in a drop in cases filed because landlords understand tenants will have representation, and she said more funding in the program could ultimately help keep people from becoming unhoused.
“There’s been plenty of research and statistics about how evictions are causing an increase in unhoused people,” she said. “Jurisdictions need to look at it as a homeless prevention measure.”
In Long Beach, Schultz said LAFLA expects over 1,900 evictions to be filed in the next year, something that could push more low-income households into the streets.
The $1.9 million total that advocates are requesting could cover about 16% of the cases that eviction lawyers are expecting will be filed this year, or about 300 cases in Long Beach.
Schultz said that would fund about six lawyers to work on Long Beach cases, but eventually, the program would have to grow to 28 lawyers to fund the anticipated workload.
That could require the city to invest around $9.5 million, Schultz said. They’ve proposed that Long Beach use a phased approach over five years to eventually reach that level of funding, which is similar to the process that’s been proposed in LA.
Taking the first step and directing $1.9 million toward the issue now, though, is critical, according to Schultz, who also noted that the $200,000 the city pledged toward right-to-counsel funding in March finally made it to the program last week.
The money wouldn’t just go toward covering legal fees. It would also cover outreach and education campaigns to ensure tenants are aware of their rights.
Long Beach Residents Empowered, or LiBRE, is a local nonprofit that has been helping residents learn their rights and work through eviction notices. The organization holds “know your rights” presentations every month and refers those facing eviction to organizations like LAFLA so they can get representation.
Andre Donado, a project director for LiBRE, said the nonprofit is getting about five phone calls per day now that most tenant protections have been lifted, and eviction filings have reached pre-pandemic levels.
“It is very bad,” she said.
Organizers are also pushing for the council to prioritize creating a $1 million “settlement fund” later in the year, apart from the current budget process. (It’s not uncommon for the council to allocate extra funds if city revenue outpaces expectations, which it has in recent years.)
The fund would create a pool of money for tenant lawyers to use to help negotiate with landlords and help pay unpaid rent.
“Building housing is super important, but we need to do both together,” Donado said, of keeping people in their homes.
For advocates like Schultz and Donado, the right-to-counsel fund should be seen as an investment that could potentially save the city millions in emergency shelter and other homeless services. Keeping people housed could shield them from the trauma of becoming unhoused, Donado said.
Sutton, with the California Apartment Association, meanwhile, agrees the issue should be viewed through an economic lens, but he believes a different approach would be more effective.
He called on cities like Long Beach to examine whether the money they intend to spend on legal defense could be spent on other more proven housing policies, like direct rental relief.
“I don’t know why we’re making this more complex and trying to find a legal solution when it’s clearly an economic one,” Sutton said.
The City Council is expected to approve the budget by mid-September. The council’s Budget Oversight Committee, which can make funding recommendations to the full council, will next meet Aug. 29 and is scheduled to make its recommendations to the full council for adoption alongside the budget.
The last possible day for the budget to be approved is Sept. 12.