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Santa Monica Moves to Offer Free Representation to Tenants Facing Eviction
By Jorge Casuso
December 11, 2019 -- The Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday took initial steps to fund representation for low-income tenants threatened with eviction in one of the nation's hottest rental markets.
The move -- which staff cautioned would be costly -- was spurred by the rapid gentrification of the Pico Neighborhood, the least poorest and most diverse area of the City.
"I don't want these trend mongers to be eliminating more of our residents," said Mayor Kevin McKeown, who sponsored the item with Councilmember Sue Himmelrich.
"This is not coming to the Council out of the Blue," said McKeown, adding that the item was intended to protect "all of our renters in the community who are increasingly threatened."
Himmelrich, a staff attorney for the the non-profit Western Center on Law & Poverty, noted that a program in New York City that offered legal counsel to threatened tenants avoided 30 percent of evictions.
She said 95 percent of tenants threatened with eviction lose in court if they don't have a lawyer and noted that the existing "patchwork system" of attorneys that offer free legal representation is fraying.
"People need lawyers, and they aren't getting them, and they're having trouble finding them," Himmelrich said.
City Attorney Lane Dilg said her office was precluded from providing legal representation to individuals and cautioned that the estimate to fund outside counsel could be $1 million a year.
"This will be expensive and it will require trade offs," Dilg told the Council. "This is not something that is supported in the budget."
A possible funding source could be a new fee negotiated under a settlement agreement this week with Airbnb ("Santa Monica, Airbnb Settle Home-Sharing Battle," December 10, 2019).
Among other things, the agreement requires the online platform to pay the City $2 for every night booked in Santa Monica on its site
Funding could also come from a fund proposed by California Governor Gavin Newsome that could provide legal aid for renters facing eviction, Council members said.
A study released by the Santa Monica Planning Department last month found there is little the City can do to preserve the Pico Neighborhood outside of enhancing tenant protections ("City Can Do Little to Stem Gentrification of Pico Neighborhood, Report Concludes," November 26, 2019).
One of the study's recommendations, McKeown noted, was creating the right to legal representation against eviction for renters.
That right that should be extended to all renters in the City, he said.
Councilmember Ted Winterer noted that any proposed form of legal representation should be offered only to low-income tenants who qualify.
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