By Andrew Cohen
Curbing homelessness requires innovative thinking and productive partnerships—what Berkeley Law’s East Bay Community Law Center has delivered regularly over the past three decades.
Brought together by the San Francisco Foundation and the City of Oakland, EBCLC, Catholic Charities of the East Bay, and Bay Area Community Services are collaborating on a new initiative called Keep Oakland Housed. Together, they crafted a unique three-prong approach involving legal, financial, and supportive services.
“Oakland is in a housing crisis,” says EBCLC Deputy Director Frank Martin ’04. “We’re seeing unprecedented displacement and loss of economic and racial diversity. We must produce more affordable housing, but building takes time. This project is an emergency intervention to preserve existing affordable tenancies. … Berkeley Law students will help in this important work by being on the frontlines with EBCLC attorneys and staff.”
A recent study estimated that more than 2,700 people were homeless in Oakland, and that homelessness there had surged by about 25 percent from 2015 to 2017.
Keep Oakland Housed is embedded into EBCLC’s existing housing practice, which has served thousands of clients and trained nearly 500 Berkeley Law students. Students can participate in every aspect of the work—intake, negotiations with landlords, discovery, depositions, motions, and trials—like they do with other EBCLC clients. Some have already made an impact.
Ye Eun Chun ’19 helped a Section 8 tenant who had suffered a stroke and could not pay rent for several months. Supervised by EBCLC attorney Hai Dao, Chun negotiated a settlement agreement, which paid back rent through the financial prong of Keep Oakland Housed.
She also helped reduce the tenant’s rent by 25 percent due to problems with the unit, and persuaded the landlord to make urgent repairs and deliver a new stove. While the new stove arrived on time, electrical issues in the kitchen prevented it from working.
“The tenant came in to inform us of the broken stove, and also that she hadn’t eaten all day,” Chun says. “We scoured the office for food and ending up giving her some bread gifted by another client and our lunches so she and her kids could eat. We contacted the landlord and negotiated an additional food stipend until the electrical issue was fixed, and for the landlord to pay for portable gas burners in the interim.”
In another case, Chun assisted a single mother of two facing eviction over one month of unpaid rent. When the landlord refused to back down during settlement discussions, Chun helped draft a motion to have the case thrown out.
“Thanks to Ye Eun’s efforts, the landlord eventually backed down and agreed to settle the case with a repayment plan,” says Meghan Gordon ’11, who directs EBCLC’s housing practice. “The tenant got financial assistance through Keep Oakland Housed to help pay off some of the back rent, and ultimately settled using back rent assistance because she had missed work after being forced to make multiple court appearances.”
Funded by $9 million from the San Francisco Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, the program aims to help Oakland residents at risk of losing their housing by providing legal representation, emergency financial assistance, and supportive services.
Those who earn half or less of the area’s median income are eligible for assistance, with priority to extremely low-income households. EBCLC will help represent tenants facing active eviction suits to keep them in their current apartments. Such suits are increasing as landlords seek to escalate rents amid the Bay Area’s tight rental market.
EBCLC and its partners also negotiate with landlords to prevent evictions, provide emergency financial assistance to keep residents housed, and offer wrap-around services aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty. Program staff members speak English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin.
Bay Area Community Services and Catholic Charities of the East Bay will provide emergency financial assistance, case management services, and access to resources for employment and financial counseling and health services.
“There’s a profound imbalance in legal representation between landlords and tenants,” Martin says. “When this imbalance is corrected, tenancies can be saved. Working poor today are subject to many income and expense spikes, and have limited liquid assets to address these shocks.”