Tenant Legal Services: The Challenge Continues!

Beverly Hills offers few protections to households that rent housing. Unlike other rent-stabilized cities, Beverly Hills does not prohibit no-just-cause eviction or set a minimum habitability standard simply; it merely falls back on the state’s Civil Code in most areas. So tenants are on our own to defend our housing rights in court. That makes the city-funded housing rights legal services program that much more important.

With $60,000 in annual funding in the offing, nonprofit Bet Tzedek, which already provides senior legal services to Beverly Hills residents, answered the call for proposals with this proposition:

Services to tenants will include advice and counsel, advocacy, and limited representation regarding rights and responsibilities under the Beverly Municipal Code and other landlord-tenant laws… and any other violations of state and local laws pertaining to tenants’ rights.

The housing rights legal services grant is means-tested. It runs in parallel to the senior legal services provided by Bet Tzedek to city residents. The latter program is age-restricted of course, however the income limits may not apply for senior applicants who meet the “greatest social need.”

On-call legal advice is important, and Renters Alliance has referred a handful of tenants in the past couple of months, but the feedback has been mixed. Delays in callbacks and staffing the designated Beverly Hills representative suggested growing pains for the new housing rights legal service program.

We have to get this program right: the courthouse may be a tenant’s last line of defense against eviction or unlawful unit entry or discrimination.

But landlords like it that way. They have worked to defeat accountability measures like the rental unit registry and even filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Is it Time to Reassess the Program?

With this year’s legal services grant contract now past the halfway point, the time is right to recount some observations about the program. Especially because the city will consider applicants for the next round of Community Assistance grants soon.

Local resource information card
This card is the only time I have seen the legal services program promoted. If one doesn’t know about the program’s focus on tenants, why would anybody think to call the number?

First, the city has failed to promote the legal services program to residents who rent. Even now, six months after the program was given the green light, we still can’t find a mention of the program on the city’s rent stabilization website or even the page devoted to tenants. The sidebar doesn’t mention it either. Except for the single handout card (at right) and a one-line description on the Human Services division webpage it is as if the program simply doesn’t exist.

Second, city staff has not been particularly responsive to inquiries about the program. Early on we referred a few tenants with time-sensitive issues (like eviction, hello!) to our city’s Community Services Department for referral on to Bet Tzedek, but the tenants weren’t getting a timely call back. “How long should I wait for a response?” one asked after a two-week wait. That is not acceptable; tenants need an immediate call back.

Third, when we referred tenants directly to Bet Tzedek, they found provider-side disorganization. “They’re not taking clients,” one tenant was told. “They don’t know of any program for Beverly Hills,” said another tenant. We knew different because we had a signed contract in hand. So we reached out to the executive director for a direct contact number and email and got it. No tenant should have been turned away.

Fourth, Bet Tzedek was slow to get this program going in the first place. Recruitment for a dedicated staff position commenced the first week of July but it wasn’t until mid-October that an “advocate” was hired. Two months later, that advocate has taken leave for Bar exam prep. Given the new rent stabilization policies here in Beverly Hills, it would be helpful to have a seasoned hand to turn to at Bet Tzedek.

Last and most worrisome, city oversight flagged. It is crucial that a new program like this be managed effectively. Our Community Services department should have developed basic performance measures to guide the provider. It should have demanded timely quarterly status reports (which Bet Tzedek is obligated to provide). Does city staff even know how many tenants have been served and how many were referred on because they did not meet the income test?

Entirely Predictable!

On that latter point, in fact we expected lax oversight: the Administrative Support division that oversees city grants was without an executive in place (the webpage simply says “position vacant”) and there are four – four! – staff positions unfilled there. But grant administration should be a priority. (Maybe the city’s new auditor will ensure that tenant services are actually delivered properly. We may refer it on to the auditor ourselves!)

The next round of Community Assistance grants selection comes this spring. (Read the request for proposals.) We want to see the existing contract be renewed but with greater oversight and clear performance measures in place. And of course we need better promotion of the program and we need stable advocates at Bet Tzedek who are familiar with our city’s policies.

As it stands, the housing rights legal services program is too important to let slack. Bet Tzedek is the thin reed of hope that stands between some tenants and the street. Let’s get it right!

We want to har from any tenant who needs legal assistance. If you have called on Bet Tzedek already, please get in touch!