Reaction to RAND op-ed in LA Times

03/01/2024, Miscellaneous, Housing - Evictions

The push in Los Angeles for a tenant right to counsel has been the subject of a lot of media attention.  Recently, one of those pieces, an LA Times op-ed by RAND Associate Economist George Zuo, made some arguments that we at the NCCRC wanted to take some time to address (see also a short but excellent Letter to the Editor in response by Barbara Schultz of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles). 


That the piece was authored by someone at RAND came as a surprise to us, since RAND’s Institute for Civil Justice held a symposium last year that we attended by invitation and that focused on how legal representation improves tenant outcomes in eviction cases.  Apparently RAND researchers work across many policy areas, often from different perspectives, and RAND doesn’t have official (or unofficial) organization-wide policy stances.


Returning to the op-ed itself: after listing all of the issues that are leading to a massive eviction crisis in LA (increasing rent debt emerging from the pandemic, the end of pandemic-era protections, the slow pace of LA’s rental assistance program), and the resultant elevated filing dates, the op-ed begins by expressing sympathy for small landlords that were “scarred” by the pandemic and who are “within their rights to evict tenants who don’t pay.”  A counterpoint is data from Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) finding that not only do corporate entities own over 43% of all LA rental units, but that trusts own another 23% and that individual owners of rental units (i.e. the “small landlords”) comprise less than 25% of the market. 

The op-ed then underscores, perhaps unwittingly, the absolute control landlords have over the city’s rental units: “Rather than rent units quickly, [landlords] may let units sit empty as they wait to find more financially established tenants. This could make it even harder to secure affordable housing in L.A. — especially for those with unsteady incomes (gig workers, contractors, artists) as well as those with potential red flags that background checks will inevitably uncover (such as justice-involved individuals and renters with poor credit histories or past evictions).”  The op-ed then leans further into unintentionally acknowledging landlord power, suggesting that one reason right to counsel is unwise is because it “antagonizes landlords” and that “Los Angeles can ill afford a drawn-out power struggle with landlords.”  This is the real truth at stake: RTC is unpopular with a systems player that holds a lot of power.


The op-ed also completely dismisses the idea that tenant attorneys will protect rights that typically go unenforced (an idea well supported by the LA Stout report estimating that disruptive displacements would fall from 99% to 5% with RTC), instead dismissively suggesting that evictions are “mostly [] cut-and-dried cases” and that all RTC will accomplish is “send[ing] tenants the message that they might be able to get away with not paying rent if they fight hard enough.”  Given that Stout found 76% of LA tenants lose by default, and that the pandemic-era tenant protections have mostly expired, the author should be far more worried about massively systemic tenant disempowerment, not speculating that tenants will suddenly seize the reins from landlords that the author has already acknowledged hold the true power. 

The op-ed takes issue with the national RTC success data, implying that the landlords in those other jurisdictions were acting completely legitimately but just “giving up and eating the cost of lost rent” once opposed by tenant attorneys.  It is incredible to suggest that the rates of tenants avoiding eviction in RTC jurisdictions (NYC 84%, San Francisco 60%, Boulder 63%, Cleveland 93%, Toledo 88%, Connecticut 71%, Washington State 50%) are completely due to landlord capitulation, and as Barbara’s responsive LTE noted, “Not all nonpayment evictions are valid. Many are pretextual, procedurally invalid or the result of uninhabitable conditions.”  The op-ed then suggests a better way to “prevent illegal evictions from reaching court” is by allowing tenants to withhold rent when repairs are not made.  However, rent withholding (which we certainly support) does nothing to prevent a landlord from filing in court (including filing in defective ways) or from simply retaliating against a tenant who has no legal protection. 


Finally, the op-ed suggests the best strategy is spending funds on “rehousing displaced families as quickly as possible.”  However, displacement comes along with potential disruptions to medical providers and care, schools, employment, child custody, and more, not to mention an eviction record that makes obtaining new housing near impossible.  And given the tight housing market, the eviction record they will have obtained via the displacement, and the resources it takes to apply for new housing (deposits, utility hookups, etc.) a displaced family will not have an easy time finding a new home even with assistance.  It will certainly not be quick.


The City and the County of Los Angeles are actively working on right to counsel ordinances because a right to counsel is part of the full panoply of protections that renters should have: eviction diversion programs, rental assistance, substantive legal changes that address the inherent power-imbalance in the landlord-tenant relationship, and a RTC to help effectuate all of these other protections.  The LA Right to Counsel Coalition has done tremendous work in getting RTC this far along, and given that the efforts are on the verge of success it’s not surprising that more opposition is coming out of the woodwork.  And the need for RTC and other protections is crystal clear in other media stories that have centered tenants, like the recent two part series from Capital and Main (check out part 1 and part 2) about Mike Balog, a rent-stabilized tenant living in the Hollywood area of LA whose landlord (a large rental company) wants him out. And they’ve tried to get him out (through eviction and other means) for many years. The series lifts the covers off what a home is - rental or otherwise - particularly for a man entering his 7th decade.  I chipped in on the piece, noting that Mike’s struggle is so common: “In many markets, we are seeing landlords trying to get rid of tenants who have been there for a long time, and [they] see the potential for more rent with a new tenant, especially in markets like Los Angeles…As a tenant you’re vulnerable.”