How Right to Counsel Could Decrease Homelessness

It’s easy to assume that homeless people need a house—but sometimes they need a lawyer even more.


Many people associate homelessness with mental health or drug abuse problems. However, there is a large number of families – most with children – who become homeless not because of their health, but because of illegal and legal evictions due to nonpayment of rent or technicalities such as too many people living on the premises. In California, the Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants in rent-controlled buildings as long as the landlord sells the building, turns it into condos or leaves it vacant for 5 years, which has led to a loss of close to 20,000 rent-controlled dwellings since 2001. Once evicted, many tenants either can’t afford market rents or struggle to find a landlord willing to accept a tenant with a prior eviction.


The number of homeless continues to grow in many big cities because of a shortage of affordable housing. New York City median apartment rents rose more than 3% faster than the rate of inflation in the past five years, while median renter incomes barely increased at all over that same time period. It is an even larger problem in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has some of the least affordable housing in the nation. L.A. residents are spending almost half of their income on rent each month, which is the highest rent burden in the nation. After reading that, it is easy to understand how many residents live paycheck-to-paycheck and one month with unexpected health costs or job loss could leave a family homeless. An estimated 44,359 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, which is a 12% increase since 2013. And as I mentioned above, it isn’t always because of mental health issues or drug abuses. There is a cycle of homelessness among the working poor in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Times has an interactive map of the homeless population in Los Angeles County.

Last fall, Los Angeles declared a state of emergency over homelessness and as a result, city officials approved a $100 million budget last month to spend on permanent housing, shelter, housing vouchers, rental subsidies, case management and expanded counseling and therapy, among other services. The mayor also instructed that the city free up an additional $13 million to help house people. As the city determines how exactly to implement their plan for the $100 million funding, they should take a close look at New York City. Instead of funding housing to remedy the problem, New York City officials aimed to prevent the number of people becoming homeless in the first place. About a third (32%) of families in New York City that enter shelters do so because of eviction from private housing. Unlike criminal cases, in which defendants have a right to counsel, housing court does not have the same requirements. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that while 90% of landlords have lawyers in New York City eviction cases, less than 10% of tenants do, skewing the results in the landlords’ favor. So in response, the city has allocated nearly $46 million for legal aid for tenants over the past two years. While this sounds like a large amount of funding, it will likely save costs over the long run. It costs about $2,500 to provide a tenant with an attorney for their court proceeding, compared to an average of $45,000 to shelter a homeless family for the average length of stay of 439 days.


A downtown Los Angeles civil court launched a pilot program in 2011 to help provide legal assistance to low-income tenants in eviction cases, but the need is much greater than the downtown area. So far in New York, the resources allocated to court representation for tenants has already led to an 18% decrease in evictions, as of last month. Los Angeles – take note.

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