The state of California is currently experiencing a major housing crisis. Despite the passage of several recent measures and propositions funding new developments that will eventually provide spaces for thousands of families, the most recent count by the Homeless Services Authority estimates there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 people in Los Angeles alone that are currently homeless. The problem is enormously complicated and solving it completely will take meaningful and concerted action at the legislative and political levels. However, while we’re waiting for that to happen there are a few things that lawyers looking to make a difference can do to help stem the tide and keep real people off the streets.
The most obvious and direct way lawyers can help is to provide their services to those who need them for free. This is especially necessary in landlord/tenant court, where unrepresented parties are at a significant disadvantage in eviction proceedings.
Landlords are almost always represented by counsel. Having attorney representation for the tenants can often be the difference when it comes to staving off eviction. In fact, a pilot program in Washington D.C. showed that parties with zero cost representation were six times more likely to achieve a favorable outcome and avoid eviction. Underlying how important this can be, studies show that eviction -- which can be highly damaging to the credit score and associated with workplace instability -- often accelerates the conditions that lead to poverty and ultimately, homelessness.
A corollary to the need for pro bono representation is the idea that lawyers, typically well connected among the political and business classes, should lobby on behalf of the homeless and those in danger of becoming so.
Activating the Mechanisms of Government
It was just about a year ago that a federal judge forced Orange County to finally deal with a significant homelessness problem that had manifested itself as a massive tent city known as “Skid River”. Orange County, which has the second largest homeless population for a city its size in the United States, had attempted to clear the tent city using an Anti-Camping ordinance, but the step was immediately met with legal action.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin v. City of Boise that the county could not use the Anti-Camping law if they weren’t providing adequate shelter elsewhere. The court expanded on a line of cases going back to 2006’s Jones v. City of Los Angeles, which held that the city couldn't enforce an anti-loitering ordinance "so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds." The Martin court wrote that "as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter."
This decision, which drew attention to the problem and compelled the county to figure out how to address the crisis in a more meaningful way, only came about in response the private legal challenges brought about by advocates for the homeless.
Fight to Keep Existing Housing Viable
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure. While new housing developments will surely be necessary to deal with the overall problem, creating the political will to do it and then completing the construction can be a long, slow process. Keeping existing housing viable is often a much quicker and cheaper proposition. Lawyers can be instrumental in this regard because they have the power to file suits that enforce building codes, zoning ordinances, and health and safety guidelines.
As a quick example of the kinds of conditions lawyers can help tenants remedy consider the Los Angeles County case called Rosa Miriam Garcia et al. vs. BLT Properties Inc et al. In this action, Plaintiffs alleged the landlord failed to maintain their building in a lawful and habitable condition and failed to correct various deficiencies with garbage disposal, electrical work, plumbing, lack of hot water, water leaks, water damaged ceilings, floors, and walls containing mold and mildew, rodent and insect infestations. These are exactly the kinds of problems which, when unremedied can lead to condemnation. For former residents, that can have many of the same financial and social implications as eviction.
Helping to Secure Public Benefits
Whether in the form of direct financial assistance or subsidized medical and psychiatric care, many people who live on the edge of homelessness are entitled to help from government programs. For example, low-income individuals can be eligible for things like Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 vouchers, which will pay their rent. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes these programs even exist. Worse yet, many do know about them but don’t know how, or aren’t themselves well enough, to navigate the system and claim what they’re entitled to by law.
Solving California’s homelessness problem is going to take a lot more than just building new housing. It will take action at all scales. Attorneys have an important role to play in the fight by providing pro bono services that help tenants fighting evictions; help keep existing housing viable by filing suits that hold landlords to building and safety codes; help those seeking to navigate the public benefits system; and advocate on behalf of the homeless.