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On the Knife Edge of Homelessness

DEEGAN ON LA-Often, the very thin membrane between going to bed in your own home at night, or waking up homeless on the streets the next morning, is a single piece of paper called an unlawful detainer, which is part of the legal process, using a court, to evict someone from their home when the tenant has not paid their rent to the landlord. 

When this request to a court to evict you arrives, you are essentially forced to leave your home unless you have an attorney who can either help you negotiate with your landlord, or stand with you in front of the judge as your representative. Few low-income tossed-out tenants have had this luxury. 

Until now. The County Supervisors have introduced an Eviction Defense and Prevention Services Motion to address the critical importance of legal representation for indigent tenants facing eviction, that would look at  “low-income tenants in unlawful detainer proceedings to analyze and propose a program to provide legal representation to tenants in Los Angeles County who are facing an eviction.” 

Responding to this is Basta Universal with their recently launched pro bono pilot program of legal representation that “provides desperately needed, free, full scope legal representation to a limited number of qualified tenants at every courthouse in the County that hears eviction cases,” according to Basta’s Daniel Bramzon and Greg A. Wesley (the firm’s Executive Director and Director, Public Policy & Government Affairs respectively) in an exclusive interview with CityWatch. 

The firm is an active member of the Los Angeles Right to Counsel Coalition, which is comprised of numerous non-profit organizations in Los Angeles County that include housing and tenants’ rights in the services they provide, and that is advocating for a codified (or permanent) right to counsel for tenants who are income-qualified within the County. 

“Los Angeles is in a homelessness and eviction crisis,” Bramzon and Wesley say, and they’re doing something about it by stationing their attorneys at the eleven County courthouses that hear unlawful detainer cases every Monday and Wednesday.  

Their new eviction defense pilot program is providing free, full scope legal representation to a limited number of qualified tenants in every one of the 11 unlawful detainer hub courts in Los Angeles County. “We are the only organization in LA County providing this ‘universal’ representation,” said Wesley. 

While much of how homelessness is treated is reactive, the Basta approach is proactive and preventative. Wesley explained, “Our goal is to prevent homelessness. To that end we approach every case individually and proceed with our goal in mind. 

“That may result in anything from a jury trial to a negotiated settlement that includes what’s necessary for a smooth, dignified transition to a new place to live. Our typical settlements include relocation assistance money, waiver of back rent that is due, a reasonable period of time to move out, and sealing of the record in the unlawful detainer case. This is what our years of experience tell us is necessary to prevent our clients from slipping into homelessness.” 

It’s a jump start to a solution that would help prevent homelessness at a time when the public eye is so sharply focused on the unsightly streets and sidewalks that have been overrun with the homeless. 

This is also a time that the County Supervisors are publicly declaring that “evictions and disruptive displacements have significant and well-documented short and long-term societal costs. They can be a destabilizing force for families, neighborhoods, schools, and businesses. Evicted tenants often leave with damaged credit scores, impacting their ability to rent again or access quality financial products and loans. . .evictions are not only caused by economic hardships but are themselves a root cause of poverty and homelessness.” 

The process is simple and straightforward, much like how Public Defenders work: Basta Universal attorneys are assigned to a particular courthouse where they meet, interview and defend tenants facing eviction, often on the day the case is set for trial. Basta attorneys substitute in as counsel, and the tenant receives the due process our judicial system is constitutionally mandated to provide. 

“Basta,” declared Wesley and Bramzon, “revolutionized the way unlawful detainer, or ‘eviction’ cases are treated. We began demanding jury trials for our clients, which is their constitutional right. After a period of push back, and a few favorable Basta appellate decisions, all nonprofit organizations that represent tenants demand jury trials – it’s the rule, not the exception.” 

A “jury of their peers” may play an outsized role, as the attorneys explained: “Demanding jury trials also strengthens our clients’ position in settlement negotiations, because when a landlord has to prove its eviction case to a cross section of the tenant’s community instead of to a single judge, the result is less certain and the stakes are higher. In our experience, landlords are much more willing to agree to reasonable settlement agreements.” 

The Basta attorneys come into the picture late, and spontaneously, and with great impact. They look, in the courthouse corridors, for the tenant who is most in need of their assistance, who is ‘eligible’ based on (low) income. As Wesley and Bramzon describe it, “Because our involvement is last minute, the contrast between represented tenants and unrepresented tenants is profound. Legal representation, even at the last minute, dramatically affects results.” 

“Our clients are surprised and grateful that we are able to step in to a proceeding that might have ended with them being evicted. They expected the worst and actually got a lawyer,” concluded Wesley and Bramzon. 

“Accepting just one case per attorney, per day at all 11 unlawful detainer hub courthouses, as Basta Universal does, will result in 1,300 at-risk tenants receiving legal representation and avoiding homelessness annually,'' states Wesley. Funding for more lawyers would exponentially increase the universe of helped tenants. 

That’s 1,300 tenants (not families, which would bring the number of total individuals touched by a single eviction much higher) that will not be on the knife edge of homelessness.

 

(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Photo: LA Times. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.