After years of living on the streets and in single-room-occupancy hotels, the cozy studio apartment in San Francisco’s Japantown felt like a sanctuary to Corey Lafayette. He’d moved with no furniture, so friends found him a mattress on Craigslist and contributed a massive globe and a mirror framed in wrought-iron leaves. He bought pots and pans and dreamed of decorating.
As he cared for the plants on his sunny patio and walked through the building’s tree-lined courtyard, he could feel stress peeling away. No more stops by police. No more neighbors in his business or strict hotel rules. At the apartment, he was free.
But now, three years later, he had received an eviction notice. A building manager had raised concerns about the behavior of Lafayette’s guests. The notice said Lafayette had a right to legal counsel and gave a phone number. The streets were scary; he couldn’t go back there.
He picked up the phone.
Lafayette was lucky: San Francisco is the only city in California that guarantees tenants access to an attorney in eviction proceedings. The city is one of 17 nationwide, plus four states, that have launched right to counsel programs since New York City pioneered the idea in 2017.
While the Constitution grants all criminal defendants the right to counsel, that doesn’t extend to civil cases — even those with unusually high stakes, such as when a person risks losing their home. Nationwide, fewer than 5% of tenants in eviction cases are represented by an attorney, compared to more than 80% of landlords, the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel estimates.
As evictions soar across California now that Covid-era moratoria have expired, tenant advocates are pushing for more cities and counties to follow San Francisco’s example. Los Angeles city and county took the first