Building on Nationwide Momentum, California Assembly Approves Legislation to Establish Eviction Defense Program

Legislation Would Create New “Homelessness Prevention Fund,” Provide Legal Representation to Renters Most at Risk of Displacement and Homelessness

For immediate release:

SACRAMENTO, CA — Today, the California State Assembly approved legislation to establish a statewide eviction defense program to protect California’s most vulnerable renters. Authored by Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D - Woodland Hills) and supported by a broad coalition of more than 50 leading nonprofit and community organizations, Assembly Bill (AB) 1487 would create the “Homelessness Prevention Fund” to fund education, outreach, and legal services aimed at preventing displacement and homelessness among particularly vulnerable California tenants.

“Preventing evictions is key to addressing our homelessness crisis, particularly given the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on our most vulnerable renters,” said Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel. “This effort will leverage existing programs to address one of the root causes of the current crisis and help prevent homelessness before it begins. It builds upon an approach that has been proven to protect vulnerable communities, reduce homelessness, save taxpayer resources, and improve the fairness and efficiency of our judicial system.”

The State Assembly’s approval of AB 1487 follows growing state and local momentum for eviction defense programs across the nation. Last month, Washington state enacted a bill to require the state to provide eviction attorneys for low-income individuals and families. Maryland lawmakers also recently passed an eviction defense bill, as did Connecticut. The cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco have enacted their own versions of eviction defense legal aid programs as well.

“The ability of an individual to adequately address fundamental questions such as their ability to remain housed should not depend on whether they can afford an attorney,” said Diego Cartagena, President and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. “But sadly, in California, we face a serious justice gap, such that there is one attorney for over 10,000 eligible low-income clients. Assemblymember Gabriel’s bill helps address the most pressing access to justice issue we currently face by building upon existing programs to increase the number of legal aid lawyers available to help individuals and families faced with housing insecurity and homelessness. Providing this support is the only way we can protect people’s lives and stave off a worsening of California’s homelessness crisis.

COVID-19 has exacerbated already concerning rates of eviction and homelessness, with an estimated 13.2 million adults—nearly 1 in 5 renters—behind on rent payments due to the pandemic. Data has shown that evictions are not only caused by economic hardships but are themselves a root cause of poverty and homelessness, as nearly 50% of homeless adults list evictions or rent-related issues as a contributor to their homelessness. Furthermore, it has been found that there is a stark disparity and power imbalance in legal proceedings related to evictions, with approximately 3% of tenants have legal representation, whereas over 81% of landlords have representation. When tenants are unrepresented, they face case outcomes that can result in disruptive displacement 78% of the time or higher. When they are represented, however, legal aid providers are able to assist tenants without disruptive displacement 95% of the time.

Data has shown that evictions have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. A 2020 study found that Black and Latinx renters—particularly women—were overrepresented among eviction defendants, and these individuals were more likely to experience costly serial eviction filings in comparison to their white counterparts.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent May revise of the California budget included $60 million over three years to provide legal aid services to renters and homeowners to avoid eviction and foreclosure. These additional funds will provide free legal services for landlord-tenant issues, including legal assistance for counseling, renter education programs, and preventing evictions.

“We’re grateful to Governor Newsom for his leadership in allocating federal funds for this critical effort,” said Lorin Kline, Directing Attorney at the Legal Aid Association of California. “We’re confident that budget negotiations in the legislature will demonstrate just how vital it is that we fund legal aid for vulnerable tenants, the majority of whom are currently unrepresented and without help. Our $200 million ask is an investment that will not only save thousands of tenants from devastating, unlawful displacement, but it will also save the state money in the long run.”

Providing legal representation to particularly vulnerable low-income tenants has proven to be an effective and cost-effective strategy for addressing homelessness. A 2019 report on the LA Eviction Defense Program estimated that for every dollar spent on an eviction defense program, Los Angeles would receive approximately $4.50 in value in avoided costs for emergency shelters, local rehousing programs, and mental health and healthcare services. Similarly, reports found that investment in legal aid in Baltimore could result in $17.5 million in costs avoided annually; for New York City, $320 million annually.

AB 1487 capitalizes on growing momentum, both in California and around the country, to help tenants impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The measure is expected to be heard in Senate policy committees in the coming weeks.