California Forum

Adding one short sentence to the state law can save 50,000 from homelessness – really

Elk Grove native Phillip Moore, shown here in 2017 with his belongings, last year traced his homelessness to a 2014 eviction.
Elk Grove native Phillip Moore, shown here in 2017 with his belongings, last year traced his homelessness to a 2014 eviction.

In 2017, with virtually no fanfare, the appellate division of the Los Angeles County Superior Court wiped out a critical piece of West Hollywood’s rent stabilization ordinance. The provision allowed tenants to get reimbursed for attorney fees when victorious in standing up for their rights during eviction proceedings. Because of this provision, tenants in West Hollywood were more likely to have a lawyer with them and, consequently, were some of the least likely tenants in California to be evicted and become homeless.

Local governments need assistance from the private sector to enforce tenant rights. Municipalities have passed laws to encourage such enforcement by allowing attorneys to be paid when they successfully help tenants who could not otherwise afford legal services. Such enforcement costs taxpayers and local governments nothing – but tragically, this important and cost-effective private option is going away.

The jurisprudential erosion of private enforcement for tenant rights is a statewide problem. A few years ago, in Larson v. City and County of San Francisco, the Court of Appeal similarly gutted Proposition M’s attorney fee provision in San Francisco. So now, even in two of the most protected rent control jurisdictions, tenants remain essentially helpless in court with no financial means for good-hearted attorneys to step up and help.

In brief, the courts have ruled that because state law is silent about attorney fee provisions related to eviction cases generally, municipalities such as San Francisco and West Hollywood cannot create their own provisions to allow private enforcement of tenant protections. A one-sentence clarification in state law would be enough to cure the problem.

California continues to mull statewide rent control and the repeal of Costa-Hawkins – a law that prevents rent control from applying to rental units built after February 1995 – in efforts to alleviate the housing and homelessness crisis. The topic is hotly debated and contentious. On the other hand, we can all agree on fairness in the judicial system. Legislators would be wise to consider an immediate and uncontroversial Band-Aid by adding the following sentence to the Code of Civil Procedure, in the part that governs summary proceedings (e.g., eviction cases):

“Sect. 1174.22: Nothing in this Title shall be interpreted as prohibiting a local government from including in its local ordinances any form of a fee shifting provision related to attorney fees.”

That’s it. Simple. Local governments could then enact the attorney fee provisions that saved tenants in West Hollywood for 30 years, that San Francisco passed in Prop. M before the Larson decision, and that will provide equality in representation to tenants in court. It may come as a shock to some, but tenants with lawyers tend to win in eviction cases. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s just fair. And tenants winning eviction cases stops homelessness before it starts. No doubt.

On average, approximately 200,000 eviction cases are filed in California each year, impacting nearly 750,000 men, women, and children. If this small change in the law saves just 6.6 percent of tenants facing eviction, then we just saved 50,000 people from homelessness. Consider that: Fifty thousand fewer human beings without a home.

The new sentence may not be exciting. Nobody will print t-shirts or rally buttons. However, every legislator will know that he or she made a real difference in people’s lives across every political district and constituency. So who will propose it? And when?

Daniel Bramzon is founder and president of the Southern California-based tenants rights organization BASTA. Reach him at daniel.bramzon@basta.org.

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