Eviction defense law firm Basta hasn’t been around long—it formed in 2005—but it’s quickly developed the reputation of having revolutionized the (relatively small) field of tenant defense.
The firm now has offices in three Southern California cities and has expanded its focus into immigration law and housing rights. Curbed caught up with Basta’s outspoken founder and president, Daniel Bramzon, to ask about his experience defending tenants amid Los Angeles’s growing affordable housing crisis.
The interview was edited for clarity and length.
What was your introduction to eviction law?
I used to work at a large Century City law firm. And we would toil in the late evenings, as all young associates do. And there was a cleaning lady whom I had spoken to often because she was also there late at night. She brought an eviction case to me one day and said, “Señor Danny, que es esto?”
It was a complaint. She was being sued to be evicted from her home. Now what do you do? I could say “Oh, it’s an eviction case, best of luck to you,” or you have to get involved. And the big firms don’t like pro bono work.
I ended up helping her; she did great. Then, like a month later, her cousin, who was also a cleaning lady in the building, came in and I helped her. And I discovered that there’s a whole world here in Los Angeles of low-income tenants suffering without actual ... attorney representation. I’m originally from Miami, so I didn’t really know too much about Los Angeles at that time.
How is LA different from Miami?
The housing market is very different from Miami. There is a crisis here: the lack of affordable housing, the prices, rent control evictions—which provide incentives for landlords to be bad and evil. We have a case right now ... they’re evicting the guy because he has two cats. Now he happens to have lived in a nice area of Los Angeles for 20 years, so his rent is about 100 percent below market, but all of a sudden they’re worried about his two cats. We have not lost a cat case.
You often take eviction cases to a jury (most are decided by a judge). Why is that?
Because we want clients to stay in their below market rent-controlled apartments—not because we want them to, but because they literally can’t afford to go elsewhere. With the way Los Angeles has skyrocketed in rental prices, we have to defend every unit to the death. Going the route of a jury trial seems to make sense, because you have 12 regular folks from the neighborhood who probably can relate better to a tenant’s situation.
How does your approach differ from other nonprofits?
We push our cases a little harder, maybe, than the average nonprofit organization. Not only do we push our cases harder, but we push every case harder. We don’t pick and choose which tenant deserves to be defended, which tenant deserves to go through a multi-day jury trial. We do that every single time.
And maybe we have more energy here at Basta. Maybe we have more heart. I don’t know why other firms do or don’t do what they do. I know some nonprofits have other criteria for choosing which cases to push forward. Some have funding limitations. Some organizations can’t represent undocumented folks—here, in Los Angeles. If you can’t protect and represent undocumented residents, it takes away a big chunk of people that need our help.
Have you noticed any recent trends in the kinds of eviction cases you’re getting?
More bullshit evictions. Landlords are willing to invest a lot more to evict a tenant, because the profit is so high. Five years ago, if a landlord tried to evict someone with two cats and a lawyer popped up defending the tenant, the landlord would say, “not worth my time—I’m not spending $10,000 or $15,000 to evict the guy with the two cats.” Right now, they’re rolling the dice and doing it anyway because they have so much to gain from the eviction.
You’ve recently expanded to Long Beach.
And we have a location in Lancaster. I think we have about 15 percent of all cases in the Antelope Valley right now, which means our community outreach is working. To get that volume, tenants have to like you, to think you’re doing the right thing.
We see a lot of LA folks in Lancaster. We go up there, we say, “where are you from?” No one says they’re from Lancaster or the Palmdale area. They all say they’re from Los Angeles.
At this point in the interview, Basta attorney Roberto Garcia chimes in, saying that for many displaced tenants, Lancaster is the “last stop in LA County.” Bramzon agrees:
You know, on all our cards it says we defend tenants because the revolution begins in our homes—it says that in Spanish. But that’s not a bullshit slogan. That’s something that each and every person in this organization truly believes.
If you have a clean home environment, and by clean I mean free of roach infestations and leaks ... then you have kids who prefer to stay home and do their homework rather than escape their home and do who knows what in the streets. If you want to look at the core of improving society, you have to improve that basic concept of a safe and sanitary living environment.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Basta is a for-profit law firm. In fact, it is a nonprofit organization and always has been. We regret the error.