California Tenants Battle for Legal Counsel and a Fighting Chance Against Evictions

OAKLEY, California – Nancy Wiles had been living in an apartment complex plagued by issues like leaking ceilings and mold, but she couldn’t afford to move despite the poor living conditions. The pandemic had already impacted her income, and her disability made it even more challenging to make ends meet. Wiles found herself falling behind on rent, and her situation only worsened when she had to stay in a hotel due to apartment repairs. The costs of hotel stays, takeout food, and necessary items like a slow-cooker began to add up, pushing Wiles further into financial hardship.

In September, when Wiles and her son were preparing to move out of the apartment, they received an unexpected knock on the door – an eviction notice. Despite their plans to leave, the eviction paperwork remained in Wiles’ purse, causing her problems later on.

Evictions can be confusing and fast-moving for tenants. In Contra Costa County, where Wiles resided, the majority of tenants facing eviction lack legal representation, making it difficult for them to navigate the complex eviction court process. Many tenants aren’t aware that they must respond to eviction notices within a specific timeframe, leading to default judgments against them.

Studies have shown that legal representation significantly improves outcomes for tenants facing eviction. Philadelphia’s right to counsel program for low-income tenants resulted in fewer default judgments in favor of landlords and a higher likelihood of eviction cases being withdrawn. However, a shortage of experienced tenant attorneys remains a challenge in implementing such programs.

In San Francisco, Corey Lafayette, a low-income tenant, faced eviction due to falling behind on rent during the pandemic. He believed discrimination played a role in his situation, recalling a conversation with the apartment manager who expressed a desire to remove him from the premises. Lafayette sought legal assistance and was matched with a tenant attorney who helped him navigate the eviction process.

Right to counsel campaigns similar to San Francisco’s program are being considered in several California cities and counties, including Los Angeles. These programs aim to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction. While landlord groups argue that taxpayer-funded attorneys don’t address the root cause of evictions – missed rent payments – advocates believe that legal representation can prevent displacement and contribute to more favorable outcomes for tenants.

Ultimately, Lafayette reached a settlement agreement with his landlord, ensuring he could stay in his home while also addressing concerns about his guests’ behavior. Meanwhile, Wiles found resolution when an attorney helped dismiss her eviction case.

The stories of Wiles and Lafayette highlight both the challenges tenants face in navigating eviction proceedings without legal representation and the potential benefits of providing counsel to those in need. As cities and counties explore right to counsel programs, the hope is to level the playing field and prevent unnecessary evictions, ultimately stabilizing housing for vulnerable individuals and families.

In conclusion, the lack of legal representation for tenants facing eviction in California has created barriers and imbalances within the eviction court system. While some cities have implemented right to counsel programs, the shortage of experienced tenant attorneys continues to pose challenges. These programs aim to provide tenants with legal assistance, but the debate between advocates and landlord groups regarding the cost and effectiveness of such programs remains ongoing. As the issue of eviction continues to impact vulnerable individuals and communities, finding equitable solutions through legal representation may be crucial in preventing and resolving eviction cases.