A Family Keeps Their Housing Thanks to Legal Aid

Tim Clark

Tim Clark

Welcoming our newest blogger: Tim Clark is a partner at The FactPoint Group, a Silicon Valley-based research and consulting firm that is dedicated to the business improvement of its clients. A concerned citizen who wanted to learn more about the issues facing low-income persons in our community, Tim got in touch with the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County shortly after the election, and has remained a dedicated volunteer. 

For Fiona C. and her three children, their Redwood City apartment in a Latino neighborhood was more than a place to sleep. It was the center of lives-work, school, home and friends--that they had built for seven years, three kids and their single mom, supporting the family on Fiona's two cleaning jobs. 

The two younger children were doing well in elementary school, and at Woodside High School, the eldest daughter performed not only academically but on the swim team and cheer squad. 

So the 60-day eviction notice that came to Fiona (not her real name) in November 2016, on the same day that the apartment complex's new owners closed escrow on the 10-unit apartment building, was a major disruption. 

Oddly, other residents in the apartment complex received rent hikes (these are market rate apartments, not subsidized) of $300 a month-to $2,300-but no eviction notice. Fiona asked the new landlord for an extension so her two younger children could finish the academic year at their familiar schools, walking distance from their home. 

The landlord offered Fiona "a deal": An extra 30 days (not enough for her children to finish the year at their schools) if she paid the $300 rent increase-plus another $500 for unspecified reasons. Fiona paid the extortionary price. 

Fiona's options were limited in San Mateo County's pricey rental market, where the county says the median price of a two-bedroom apartment runs $2,980 as of September 2016. That median figure exceeds Fiona's annual income. In August 2017 listings for Redwood City, one-bedroom rentals ranged from $1,120 to $2,995 per month. A rare two-bedroom rental ranged from $3,495 to $3,695. 

Fiona found her way to a Housing Rights Legal Clinic in Fair Oaks Community Center, Redwood City, that is run by the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County. There Fiona spoke, in Spanish, with Legal Aid housing coordinator Lacei Amodei. 

Soon after, Legal Aid attorney David Carducci contacted the landlord to protest the illegal collection of the extra $800 and to ask why Fiona alone among the tenants was being evicted. Fiona's unit was messy, the landlord said. 

What made the extra $800 illegal? Collecting increased rent without any notice or 60-day time period,  Carducci said, and the landlord had no legal basis to make her pay the extra $500 other than extortion because Fiona was desperate to hold off the eviction.

Meanwhile, Carducci and the housing coordinator visited the unit themselves and found it in good condition-no worse than expected for three kids and their toys living there. 

Despite Legal Aid's efforts, the landlord hired an attorney and filed an eviction lawsuit against Fiona. Legal Aid defended her aggressively, taking the deposition of the landlord. 

"Our mission at Legal Aid's Housing Unit is to prevent homelessness, and that means keeping people in safe affordable housing," said Carducci, who is also Director of Litigation for Legal Aid. "Our highest priority through the Housing Clinics is to identify the people who are at high risk of homelessness-that's the 10% of clients who come to the Housing Clinic that we devote the most resources to. We can advise 90% of the Housing Clinic clients on the spot, but the ones at real risk we prioritize."  

San Mateo County's biennial census of homeless in the county on Jan. 25, 2017, found 1,253 homeless people in San Mateo County, roughly half or 637 unsheltered (living on streets, in cars, in RVs, in tents/encampments) and 616 sheltered homeless people (in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs). That marked a 16% decline from the 1,483 homeless counted in 2015. A major factor in the decline was a change in how certain facilities were counted. 

Unlike housing discrimination, no government entity regulates rents-so private attorneys and agencies such as Legal Aid become "law enforcement." Carducci's legal strategy in cases with an eviction notice is to try to keep the family in their home so they do not have to move-whenever possible. Many who are priced out of San Mateo County move to the East Bay, Central Valley or out of state. 

In Fiona's case, Legal Aid's defense-specifically taking the landlord's deposition-against the landlord's litigation led the landlord to dismiss the case, and Fiona's family stayed, albeit at the higher rent. "Obviously Fiona's landlord did not have a compelling legal reason to evict her and her kids.  By standing up for her rights, we prevented a total displacement of this family that is established in their community," Carducci said.