ECHO PARK — Lupe Breard had spent the previous weeks packing up her belongings, waiting to be evicted from her historic Echo Park home – the home where, six decades ago, she lived alongside the Arechigas, the last family displaced in the racist “blight” clearance project that produced Dodger Stadium.

Then on March 5th, Judge Jerrold Abeles vacated her eviction.

Breard’s win is unusual. A 2020 UCLA report estimated that there are roughly 50 attorneys specializing in eviction defense in the entire county. And Breard got two of them.

After the ruling, Breard accompanied her lawyer, her son, and her supporters from the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) to the Stanley Mosk courthouse’s rooftop cafe, where they could celebrate out of view of the other renters waiting for their own eviction trials to begin.

The last time Breard was on that roof, a jury had just signed off on her eviction by the NELA Group, a Latino-owned developer that targets “distressed” properties in Los Angeles.

“The last time I was [t]here I was looking for the best spot to jump,” Breard said. It felt different now: “The clouds were out there and it was like something out of a movie,” was all she could say.

The turnaround exemplified how lawyers can stave off evictions, and how vulnerable tenants are to displacement without them. But in Los Angeles, just 3.6% of tenants have a lawyer in an eviction case, compared to 88% of landlords, according to 2019 research prepared by the investment firm Stout Risius Ross LLC for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

LA tenants without eviction defense lawyers ended up experiencing some level of housing displacement 99% of the time, the research found.

Breard got a lawyer because she found the money for one — via her sister, Sarah Padilla, who is also facing eviction from the Ewing home.  Breard is unemployed and has been applying for disability. Padilla loaned her $800 to retain a lawyer at Basta, Inc. Another Basta organization, Basta Universal, is one of a handful of eviction defense nonprofits that comprise the Stay Housed LA program, the current city and county effort to provide eviction defense lawyers and other legal advice to tenants.

LA Mayor Karen Bass and other local officials regularly refer tenants facing eviction to the Stay Housed website, where they can fill out a form on their case. They’re then entered into a lottery-like system for a lawyer, according to at least one advocate, and many tenants don’t get representation.

When Breard lost her trial in January — in her view, because her lawyer, Jonathan Segura, mishandled her case, not presenting key evidence — Basta assigned her to Jacob Woocher, and he convinced her judge to vacate the previous eviction. (Segura never responded to a request for comment. In February, Basta director of operations Jeanette Alvarez-Webster said the nonprofit was disappointed in the initial ruling but would fight to the end to overturn it. “We don’t give up,” she said.)

NELA Group bought the property at 1553 Ewing Street in 2021. In 2022, they sent Breard an eviction notice on the basis that her sister, Padilla, had denied agents of the developer entry to Breard’s unit. Breard and Padilla say that never happened, and Breard tried repeatedly to contact NELA Group to say she had missed their visit but would happily let them into her unit as soon as they wished.

Breard’s first lawyer, Segura, did not present that evidence in her January trial, and the jury sided against her. That put her in a desperate position.

Tenants’ odds of beating an eviction grow much longer after they lose in court. They grow longer again — hopelessly long, some lawyers say — when tenants are actually ejected from their units. Still, lawyers allow them to keep fighting even then. After the January ruling, Woocher filed for a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, which argues that legal issues in the case meant the jury’s ruling should never have been made.

Woocher told Breard the plan was a longshot, but Judge Abeles agreed with his arguments. Abeles said the management company that filed the eviction had no grounds to do so on behalf of NELA Group and that when they notified Breard they wanted to inspect her unit, they never said when their agents would come. Woocher argued this required Breard to sit outside her door all day and night, waiting for them. So Abeles vacated the jury’s decision; NELA Group has until the 19th to respond. NELA Group didn’t answer repeated questions about the Breard case.

City and county COVID-era eviction protections expired last spring and eviction filings now exceed pre-pandemic levels. In 2023, landlords in the county filed more than 47,600 unlawful detainers — lawsuits against a tenant for possession of a unit. That’s according to court records compiled by Kyle Nelson, senior policy and research analyst for the tenant advocacy nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy.

Lawmakers will be unable to tackle homelessness without also halting evictions.  Progressives hope they can do that by providing more lawyers to tenants: The city is considering a right-to-counsel program, which is supposed to guarantee representation for tenants being evicted. (LA County voted to create a program in unincorporated areas last summer, but the details – including its funding – are still being finalized.)

San Francisco launched a right-to-counsel program in 2019 — though so far, only around 75% had a lawyer from the start of their case to the finish  under the program. Around 70% of tenants with full-scope representation stay in their homes, the Mayor’s Office of Housing told CalMatters.

But the legislation the city is considering won’t halt eviction proceedings if tenants don’t have lawyers, the way criminal cases are halted when a defendant is not represented.

So, in spite of its name, the legislation being considered is not exactly a “right” to counsel, according to Eric Post, also a lawyer at Basta.  “It’s a bill to expand access to counsel by giving more funding for nonprofit lawyers,” he said.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles estimates that it would cost nearly $68 million annually to fund a program serving 10,000 tenants with 200 lawyers. There is already some hand-wringing about the cost — but the Los Angeles Police Department spends more than two-thirds of that amount ($46.6 million) annually on its Air Support Division. Could the city represent more than 6,600 additional tenants in eviction court each year by not flying 17 helicopters? (In 2019, Stout Risius Ross LLC also estimated a full right-to-counsel program would cost much less — around $35 million a year, including $10.7 million for eviction prevention and pre-litigation services.)

The Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, a private nonprofit supporting mayoral initiatives, is also trying to recruit and train 300 pro-bono attorneys to work on eviction defense. As of this fall, the Fund said about 200 were participating in the effort. A representative for the Mayor’s Fund told LA Public Press they have now recruited 350 attorneys. But the pro-bono lawyers practice other law at firms like O’Melveny and Myers and will be ill-equipped for tenant defense, according to attorney Post.

“It’s a fucking delusion thinking pro-bono attorneys will do this work,” he said. “They’re from big, fancy, national or international law firms. A lot of those firms do pro bono programs because the work they do is so politically unpalatable.”

He added that, so far, the pro-bono attorneys seem to be offering tenants legal advice in clinics, instead of providing full-scope representation, in a field they’re not trained in. “I wish I lived in a world where it was sufficient to send a self-represented tenant into court with information about what their rights are and that a judge will make the right call, but we don’t live in that world,” he said. “It sets them up to fail.”

A tenant who beats an eviction can never celebrate too enthusiastically, because their landlord can always try to evict them again, but after the hearing, Breard and her supporters went to celebrate anyway at La Cita, a bar almost as old as her house. Come what may, Breard no longer faced an imminent lockout. She now had a wide coalition behind her and NELA Group knew it; maybe the developer would hesitate before trying again.

La Cita was closed when they arrived. They waited for it to open, and when it did, Breard drank a bloody mary.

But Woocher couldn’t come to the bar. He had to go to court to represent another one of his clients, of which there are 28.

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