A program to guarantee Santa Monica renters legal representation would cost up to $1 million per year, officials said.
The City Council voted last week to develop an ordinance that would provide free legal counsel to tenants faced with eviction. Councilmember Sue Himmelrich said Tuesday that she and Mayor Kevin McKeown introduced the proposal after learning that Pico Lanai Apartments, a 174-unit complex in Santa Monica’s rapidly gentrifying Pico neighborhood, had been sold for $59 million to investment firm Pacific Reach Properties.
“The last statement that was made by the people who bought it was that they were intending to turn it into a place for millennials,” Himmelrich said. “Right now, it’s very affordable housing containing some of our most vulnerable residents.”
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, including Pico Lanai, 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.
Himmelrich and McKeown said residents at risk of being evicted when their buildings change ownership would have a better chance of staying in their homes if they had legal counsel. Himmelrich said New York City’s eviction rate has dropped 30% since the program’s launch.
“We know that when tenants go to court without an attorney, they tend to lose,” McKeown said.
McKeown said the program would help tenants who earn too much to qualify for Legal Aid assistance but are unable to afford legal representation. It would also assist undocumented tenants, who are unable to use Legal Aid services.
“Because of the cost, we will have to narrow this,” McKeown said. “It won’t apply to everybody.”
City Attorney Lane Dilg said the program, which would follow right-to-counsel laws in New York and San Francisco, would cost up to $1 million annually. Los Angeles is also in the process of creating an ordinance.
Councilmember Ted Winterer suggested using the $2 per night fee Airbnb must pay on all Santa Monica listings, which is part of a recent settlement agreement, to fund the program. Dilg said the settlement money could be used for the program but said she is unsure if it will cover its total cost.
San Francisco funded its ordinance through a ballot measure and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reallocated funds to the city’s program. New York City makes attorneys available to families who earn less than $50,000 and legal counsel available to higher earners, while San Francisco’s right-to-counsel guarantee has no income limits.
New York City’s program, which will cost $93 million at full implementation, is projected to save the city more than $300 million annually on homeless services, according to an independent report from Stout Risius Ross.