Lawmakers look to expand free legal representation for vulnerable tenants facing eviction
An amendment to Assembly Bill 1487 aims to infuse more money into local defense programs for tenants to include education, outreach, and legal services to ward off eviction actions. The bill sailed through the Assembly Judiciary Committee and, if passed by the full legislature and signed by the Governor, would be administered by the Legal Services Trust Fund Commission.
Although the chief architect of the bill is Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, it is no surprise that one of the most prolific authors of tenants’ rights legislation, Assemblyman David Chiu, threw his support behind the measure.
“Tenants are consistently underrepresented in legal proceedings… The lack of legal representation leads to increased displacement and housing insecurity. I’m proud to partner with Assemblymember Gabriel to ensure at-risk tenants can access the legal representation they deserve.”
The legislation is cleverly coined the "Homeless Prevention Fund." It's got a nice ring to it. After all, who would be against ending homelessness? Yet this term is misleading because it would hamper the ability of landlords to transition tenants out of the rental unit because the tenant is not paying the rent or is creating a nuisance. Public policy is (and should be) to stabilize tenancies, but this is not a free-for-all license for tenants to shirk their obligation to live up to their responsibilities.
We'll say early on that we are not against tenants being represented by legal counsel. We have always operated on the presumption that there are good landlords and bad landlords. By the same token, there are good tenants and bad tenants. Nobody should be painted with a broad brush and wrongs should be righted when they occur.
But make no mistake - there always will be inventive tenants' attorneys whose goal is to simply drag out an unlawful detainer action without regard to the merits. Non-paying tenants and those who are creating havoc for neighbors, or are in other breaches of the lease can prolong the misery for rental property owners, especially with an attorney to whom the tenant is not paying anything.
One favorite gambit of tenants' attorneys, whether true or not, is to assert that the rental unit is inhabitable. Other stalling tactics include all manner of frivolous pre-trial motions such as a motion to quash service, motion to strike, allegations of discrimination, and other smoke and mirrors designed to plunge landlords into protracted and costly litigation.
We have not been a Johnny-come-lately on this subject. In 2018, we chimed in on San Francisco's Right to Counsel program. In that earlier blog, we said that a newly-appointed attorney will make every effort to delay the unlawful detainer by using tactics and wedging obstacles to recover possession of the unit that is beyond the sophistication of tenants who would ordinarily fend for themselves.
The California Apartment Association says that AB 1487 would "create yet another source of funding for unethical attorneys" to elongate an eviction case.
We understand that tenants' attorneys have a professional obligation to represent their clients so we will stop short of calling their antics unethical. But we do recognize that legal expenses can be racked up when the tenant's counsel puts up a fight.
Through the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act and the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Account, California already infuses millions of dollars in funding to help low-income tenants stave off evictions.
Bornstein Law is dedicated to educating landlords and tenants alike, but we do take exception to demurrers and boilerplate motions that obstruct landlords from reclaiming possession of the unit.
The biggest factor of achieving a favorable outcome for our clients is which attorney the other party gets and how hard they fight. Everyone should be entitled to representation and have their day in court, but tenants' attorneys have an affinity for stalling tactics and frivolous motions that delay cases and drive up the legal costs of landlords, oftentimes forcing a costly settlement regardless of the merits of the case.
Everyone should have a level playing field.