SAN FRANCISCO, California – Having a lawyer can make all the difference for tenants facing eviction. Across the country, a staggering 80% of landlords have legal representation, while less than 5% of tenants do. However, in a tale of two Bay Area counties, the realities for tenants without legal aid can vary greatly.
In San Francisco’s Japantown, Corey Lafayette, a resident of a studio apartment, found himself on the brink of eviction. As an unemployed individual relying on disability checks, Lafayette fell behind on rent during the pandemic. Fortunately for him, San Francisco is the sole city in California that guarantees tenants access to legal assistance in eviction cases. With the help of a taxpayer-supported legal aid program, Lafayette was paired with an attorney to fight for his right to stay in his apartment.
Meanwhile, in Contra Costa County, Nancy Wiles faced a different outcome. Wiles had resided in her Oakley apartment since 2014 but fell behind on rent due to reduced work opportunities amid the pandemic. Additionally, the apartment had numerous repair issues. As Wiles prepared to move to a new unit in September, she received an eviction notice. However, since she was already planning to relocate, Wiles did not respond to the notice within the required five-day timeframe, ultimately costing her dearly.
Without legal representation, Wiles struggled to navigate the complicated eviction process alone. Studies have shown that having a lawyer not only increases favorable outcomes for tenants but also raises the likelihood of eviction cases being dismissed. Following the end of local and statewide eviction moratoriums, California has experienced a surge in eviction rates, some surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
Evictions are not solely driven by unpaid rent; some occur for reasons known as “no fault,” such as landlords wanting to occupy their tenants’ units. One family in East Los Angeles was forced out of their home into a smaller, more expensive apartment due to such circumstances.
While some California jurisdictions, including Los Angeles city and county, have explored the implementation of right-to-counsel programs, not all have been successful. Attempts to establish such programs in Fresno and Bakersfield by community groups have faltered. These initiatives often face opposition from landlord groups, such as the California Apartment Association. The association’s executive vice president argues that funds would be better allocated to rental assistance, preventing the eviction process from even commencing.
The outcomes of Lafayette and Wiles’ eviction cases provide a glimpse into the stark disparities faced by tenants without legal representation. In an eviction crisis that continues to unfold, the presence of a lawyer has proven crucial for tenants’ chances of remaining in their homes.