Median rents for rent-controlled units rose dramatically during the 2010s. (Santa Monica Rent Control Board)

Santa Monica renters could gain the right to legal representation against attempted evictions under a new proposal from two City Council members.

Councilmembers Sue Himmelrich and Kevin McKeown have asked the City Council to vote Tuesday to develop an ordinance that would guarantee tenants the right to legal counsel if they face eviction. McKeown said a right to counsel law will help protect renters from losing their homes as property owners try to capitalize on Santa Monica’s overheated real estate market by evicting tenants in order to raise rents.

A recent report on strategies to combat displacement in Santa Monica’s rapidly gentrifying Pico neighborhood proposed passing a right to counsel ordinance, McKeown added. 

“Eviction attempts against our neighbors continue to increase, and we know that a renter in court without a lawyer has little chance of prevailing,” he said. “Besides protecting our neighbors, we know this will slow the post-eviction rent increases to market rate on existing affordable housing, saving our community from further loss of affordability and of resident diversity.”

McKeown said the ordinance would follow right to counsel laws in San Francisco and New York City. Los Angeles is also in the process of enacting an ordinance.

In 2017, New York City became the first municipality in the country to make legal services available to all tenants facing eviction proceedings. The program is expected to provide free legal services to 400,000 residents with $166 million in annual funding.

The New York City ordinance is already helping prevent displacement, according to a report from the city’s Office of Civil Justice. Since Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the ordinance into law, legal organizations funded by the Office of Civil Justice have served 74% more households threatened with eviction.

San Francisco passed a right to counsel law in 2018, which cited a 2014 report that revealed that tenants were taken to court without representation in 80% to 90% of eviction lawsuits. 

In Santa Monica, owners of rent-controlled properties may only evict tenants if they have “just cause,” if they or their immediate family members wish to occupy the property or if they wish to leave the rental business. Most multifamily buildings in the city constructed before 1979 are subject to rent control.

A new state law that goes into effect Jan. 1 will extend those eviction protections to all renters in buildings constructed before 2005, impacting 8 million California tenants. The law also limits annual rent increases in those buildings to 5% plus inflation.

If the Santa Monica City Council votes to develop a right to counsel ordinance, city staff will draft the law for a council vote and present recommendations on how to implement and fund the ordinance. 

The City Council will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at City Hall, 1685 Main St.

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