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Western Center’s Housing Bills Become Law, Creating Landmark Renter Protections for Californians

By Madeline Howard, Western Center housing attorney

This week, Governor Newsom signed two historic renter protections into California law, both of which Western Center proudly co-sponsored, both decades in the making.

Assemblymember David Chiu’s AB 1482 is getting most of the attention because it establishes something many housing advocates never thought we would see in California – statewide protection from “no cause” evictions, and anti-rent gouging protections. Without these protections, most California landlords could evict a tenant without stating a reason – even long-term tenants who always paid their rent on time and followed all of the rules. And across the state, we’ve seen Californians indirectly evicted from their homes when rents are raised by 50, even 100 percent. The passage of AB 1482 will halt this unsustainable trajectory to keep more people in their homes.

The second of our bills that was signed into law is Senator Holly Mitchell’s SB 329. SB 329 was also an uphill battle, because so many people have unfounded negative perceptions about the federal housing voucher program, and many landlords openly state “No Section 8” in their rental listings.* SB 329 will prevent that from now on. Just as landlords are not permitted to discriminate against rental applicants because of things like race and gender, now California has outlawed discrimination based on a person’s use of housing assistance to pay the rent.

If you are wondering why SB 329 is such a big deal, let me explain. Remember the horrifying photos of a suburban police officer in Texas kneeling on a young black girl’s back as she cried, face down on the grass, in her bathing suit? Someone in the mostly-white neighborhood had called the police on the group of black teenagers for being “rowdy.” Why am I reminding you of yet another ugly incident of police brutality, violent racism, and white supremacy? Because one of those white neighbors reportedly yelled, “Go back to your Section 8 housing!”

SB 329 matters because it addresses this kind of racism head on. While our fair housing laws have long made it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to someone because of their race, California landlords were still free to say “No Section 8.”

In a chilling echo of the blatant discrimination that dominated centuries of American history, many signs and online rental listings openly say “no dogs, no Section 8.” SB 329 is important not just because it will help low income people who rely on housing vouchers actually access housing of their choice (which is hugely important on its own), but also because it addresses an ugly vestige of our deeply racist housing industry.

Our amazing housing policy advocate Sasha Harnden worked tirelessly to get SB 329 into place, because in his time as a legal services attorney in LA, he saw firsthand how clients were repeatedly turned away from housing because of landlords’ “No Section 8” policies. We are hopeful that despite the continuous rollback of civil rights on the federal level, this step forward for California will help thousands of people find and keep stable, safe, affordable housing with their vouchers, and that SB 329 will be a powerful tool for combating housing discrimination. There is so much more work to be done, but with this law we move closer to tackling segregation and racist, exclusionary practices in housing.

Just as California takes huge steps to address discrimination in housing, the Trump administration threatens to undermine decades of Civil Rights protections under the Fair Housing Act by gutting the Disparate Impact rule. To get involved in the fight to stop this civil rights rollback, visit www.fightforhousingjustice.org.

In California, we are deeply grateful to Senator Holly Mitchell for her incredible leadership on the issue of housing voucher discrimination, and I am immensely proud of my colleagues in Sacramento, Sasha Harnden and Anya Lawler, who worked so hard to make these bills happen. In the midst of the state’s housing crisis, people shouldn’t be turned away from stable housing because they need rental assistance. California is an expensive state to live in, and it’s only getting worse. The relief renters can access through various federal, state, and local housing voucher programs is an important tool in California’s fight to keep people housed and off the street. I am so proud to be a part of the team that made these historic wins happen, and I am excited to see what we can build on from here.

 

* The federal housing choice voucher program was previously known as “Section 8” and many people still refer to it that way.

 

PRESS RELEASE: Governor Signs Bill Stopping Debt Collectors From Draining Bank Accounts

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

New law will protect low-income consumers from losing vital basic income to debt collectors

On Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom signed state senator Bob Wieckowski’s Senate Bill 616, capping a three-year effort by the anti-poverty groups, local governments and labor unions across the state to provide basic protections for the bank accounts of low-income consumers. The bill’s co-sponsors – the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), the Western Center on Law & Poverty, and the California Low-Income Consumer Coalition – cheered the Governor’s signing of a measure that will automatically set aside $1,724 when a debt collector seizes a consumer’s bank account.

Sharon Djemal, director of EBCLC’s Consumer Justice Clinic, saw the need to elevate the issue of bank reform to the California legislature after fielding calls from hundreds of clients who lost the ability to cover food, rent, and basic expenses in one fell swoop. “We’ve fought for this reform for so many years because for too long, our clients were completely vulnerable to the whims of debt collectors. When their bank accounts are emptied, our clients are thrown into a financial tailspin – and sometimes even into homelessness.” Djemal added, “This bill is a significant step toward providing some basic financial stability to low-income Californians.”

“Legal services organizations around the state have long testified about the great harm of the debt-collector-take-all status quo,” said Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, a co-sponsor of the bill. “Our clients miss rent payments, suffer bounced check and overdraft fees and, eventually, walk away from traditional banking altogether as a result of these levies. The governor’s signature on SB 616 will change that.”

The $1724 set aside by the bill is the amount the California Department of Social Services (DSS) has determined is the monthly minimum necessary for a family to survive. The DSS updates the amount every year.

“Other types of assets are protected under California law, from wages to jewelry to art. The one that isn’t – or wasn’t until today – is bank accounts,” noted Ted Mermin, director of the California Low-Income Consumer Coalition. “This bill will encourage low-income Californians to keep their money in the financial system rather than enduring the dangers of becoming ‘unbanked.”

The bill also gives consumers the chance to go to court to get back any seized money beyond the cap that they need in order to survive. Debt collectors currently time account seizures to occur when consumers have just been paid, or have just received their federal earned income tax credit. SB 616 will help to limit the damage that occurs when debt collectors game the system.

The bill offers crucial protections to workers like farmworkers and substitute teachers, who rely on their savings during the off-season. One EBCLC client, Grace A., a substitute teacher, had her account cleaned out at the beginning of the summer. With EBCLC’s help she convinced a judge that the money should not have been taken from her account. However, even though she “won” in court, her money was not returned for five months. In that time she had to borrow from her retired farmworker parents in order to pay her rent – all because of a bank levy that never should have happened, but was legal under existing law. SB 616 ends this practice and resolves the issue by exempting a minimum basic amount.

The bill’s sponsors express their enormous gratitude to Senator Wieckowski and his team, to co-authors Senator Bob Hertzberg and Assemblymember Luz Rivas, to floor supporters Assemblymembers Buffy Wicks, Shirley Weber, and Rob Bonta, and above all to their clients, whose bravery in speaking up and fighting back inspired the multi-year effort that led to the passage of this long-awaited, much-needed bill.

 

Contact: Jessica Bartholow; jbartholow@wclp.org

Wrecked – Vehicle towings take a huge toll on America’s poor.

Mary Lovelace was living in Brentwood, California, and working as an interior designer. As a home-improvement specialist, she would drive a minimum of 365 miles every day in her car, carrying samples including doors, windows, and hardware in the trunk and backseat.

“Then the recession hit, between 2007 and 2009,” Lovelace recalls. “It kept getting worse and worse.” Fewer people were hiring interior designers, and eventually Lovelace was laid off. She received unemployment, which wasn’t enough to cover her rent after other expenses. She tried without success to find other work. She was eventually evicted from her rented house. A friend in nearby San Francisco let her stay in his garage. She parked her car across the street.

Parking tickets began to accumulate on the car. Some tickets, she says, listed the wrong address, a block and a half from where the vehicle was parked; sometimes the dates did not match. After a while, the car was “booted”—a metal device clamped on the wheel to render it immobile.

Nearly 50,000 towing businesses operate in the U.S., and they have already generated more than $8 billion in revenue so far this year.

…Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy for the Western Center on Law & Poverty, a California-based public interest law firm and contributor to the report, points to revelations from Ferguson, Missouri, as an example of what has been happening elsewhere.

Read more 

 

Leveling the field for college athletes

By Jessica Bartholow, Western Center Policy Advocate

We are pleased that The Fair Pay to Play Act, introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner and supported by Western Center, was signed by Governor Newsom this week. The law will allow college athletes to be paid what they are already making (currently for someone else) from their name, image, likeness or athletic reputation.

Western Center supported this legislation for a multitude of reasons, but primarily because of our commitment to economic and racial justice.

In California, more than half of NCAA Division I and Division II colleges have one or more teams with graduation rates below 60 percent. Approximately 40 percent of NCAA Division I and Division II athletes say they don’t have enough time to keep up with academics during the season, and many say athletics prevent them from taking classes. To add insult to injury, California’s Black athletes are over-represented in revenue-producing sports, but suffer the lowest graduation rates.

While the idea that athletes with scholarships are getting the opportunity of a lifetime through their college education has marketing appeal, the fact of the matter is that athletes in the highest profile, most lucrative, and most demanding sports — football and men’s basketball — are the least likely to realize that benefit. According to 2012 federal graduation rate information, only 47 percent of NCAA Division I men’s basketball players and 57 percent of football players graduate within six years.

As student athletes struggle to pay bills and stay in school (many of whom have the additional burden of caring for family members), the NCAA, coaches and other professionals don’t just make a living off of student athletes – they are rolling in the dough.

A 2011 report by the National College Players Association found that among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, 82 percent of athletes who live on campus and 90 percent of athletes who live off campus with “full” athletic scholarships live below the federal poverty level. The myth that college athletes shouldn’t receive payment for their labor because they receive a “full scholarship” or a “free ride” just doesn’t hold water.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, the average annual scholarship shortfall (out of pocket expenses) for each FBS “full” scholarship athlete was $3,285. What’s more, many collegiate athletes participate without a guaranteed scholarship or with no scholarship at all. Scholarships can be revoked for poor performance, or even failure to participate in “voluntary” workouts.

Despite significant out-of-pocket expenses college athletes must secure to stay in college, the time commitment they dedicate to their training, game-days, and travel make it practically impossible for athletes to obtain outside employment to provide for themselves or families. University studies have found that athletes spend 32 to 44 hours per week on their respective sports.

It’s also a myth that college athletes can go into debt as students because they will make enough to pay off the debt once they graduate. Case in point, the NCAA itself has said that less than one percent of women’s college basketball players will make it to the WNBA, and less than two percent of men’s college basketball, football, and soccer players will ever play professionally.

SB 206 does not require schools to pay athletes directly, nor does it allow these payments to affect scholarship offers or eligibility. It does include protections to prevent college athletes from becoming ineligible to play in NCAA competitions. Simply put, the law provides a path for collegiate athletes who already make money for their schools and for the NCAA to be paid some of that money as well – leveling the playing field for those out there on the field.

Statement on Most Recent Proposal to Cut SNAP Food Benefits via the Standard Utility Allowance

If implemented, the third proposed SNAP rule change of 2019 could result in $4.5 billion in cuts to food assistance over five years

Anti-hunger advocates are once again preparing to respond to another round of proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as CalFresh in California.

Just one week after the public comment period closed for the second set of the Trump administration’s proposed rule changes to SNAP, which would take food away from approximately three million hungry Americans, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced another proposed rule change. The 60-day period to respond to this third proposed rule will end December 2nd.

SNAP, which is administered by the USDA, is recognized as the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. If enacted, these three rules combined are estimated to negatively impact over a million Californians, more than a quarter of the SNAP recipients in our state. What’s more, these proposed cuts to SNAP are among the dozens of other safety net cuts targeting low-income families proposed by the Trump administration this year alone.

“The Trump administration’s newest proposal will be touted as streamlining and standardizing, but no one should be fooled.” said Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law & Poverty and chairperson of the Lifting Children Out of Poverty Task Force Safety-net Committee. “It’s simply another ploy to take food help away from people who turn to SNAP to prevent hunger. This is coming from a President who has never had to wonder where his next meal is coming from or worry about his kids going to bed hungry. It is disgraceful. I’m proud to know that the anti-hunger community and our allies will, once again, show up in force in opposition.”

Current law requires the SNAP program to recognize the utility expenses of each SNAP applicant household and adjust the benefits issued based on the Standard Utility Allowance (SUA) calculated by the State and approved in the State plan. The current policy allows variances in SUAs to accommodate for differences in utility costs and rates, and allows states flexibility in how they calculate those costs. The proposed changes would standardize those calculations across the country and set the SUA to an amount lower than what would be needed to meet the costs of utilities for many Californians. Nationwide, the proposed change is estimated to result in cuts to food assistance by $4.5 billion over a five-year period.

“It is unconscionable that for the third time this year, the Trump administration is proposing to cut vital food assistance for low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities,” said Jared Call of California Food Policy Advocates. “In the wealthiest country in the world, no one should have to go hungry or face the impossible choice between feeding their family and keeping their electricity on and home heated. CFPA and our anti-hunger partners are committed to working together to prevent cuts to SNAP and to insist that our national policy makers renew their commitment to end hunger and food insecurity.”

SNAP recipient households have uneven protections from hunger as a result of some states under-calculating the SUA; the only appropriate policy response is to bring those states up-to-par with other states by improving their SUAs. Instead, the administration is proposing a race-to-the-bottom solution by cutting SUAs and removing state flexibility, which will undermine our ability to help low-income Americans in every state prevent hunger and keep their electricity on at the same time. The USDA estimates that 20 percent of the national SNAP caseload will be impacted, though it is unknown what percentage of those impacted live in California.

“California food banks are on the frontlines of hunger and know first-hand the inhumane trade-offs that low-income families make between food and paying for basic needs like high utility bills,” said Andrew Cheyne, Director of Government Affairs for the California Association of Food Banks. “We’ve said it during every proposed cut to SNAP, and we’ll continue to raise awareness during this public comment period, that for every meal the charitable sector provides, SNAP delivers 12. Food banks and our partners cannot make up the difference: if this rule is enacted, people will go hungry just to keep cool during scorching summers and warm in winter.”

Leveling the SUA amounts across the country down rather than up, despite the well-documented fact that benefits for all recipients are currently inadequate, means fewer people will be able to afford the food they need to last them through the month. We urge the administration to abandon this proposal and instead join our organizations in supporting H.R.1368 (Adams, D-NC-12) to make SNAP benefits more responsive to our nation’s unacceptable levels of hunger, not less.

The previous two proposed administrative changes received a combined 200,000 comments from food banks, policy advocates, legal services, faith based organizations, unions, business leaders and government officials from across the country. The final rules for those proposals remain pending. Our organizations expect a similarly robust response to this harmful proposal and, if the barrage of comments in opposition to these proposed rules fail to discourage the administration from publishing detrimental final rules, we will take whatever next-steps are necessary to prevent hunger and protect the rights of low-income Californians.

 

For more information about our opposition to this proposed rule, contact us at: 

Jessica Bartholow, Western Center on Law & Poverty

Email: jbartholow@wclp.org

Phone: (916) 282-5119

 

Jared Call, California Food Policy Advocates

Email: jared@cfpa.net

Phone: (510) 560-6485

 

Andrew Cheyne, California Association of Food Banks

Email: andrew@cafoodbanks.org

Phone: 510-350-9915

California lawmakers take aim at ‘punitive’ child support system for low-income families

When Ronnell Hampton was growing up, his father wrote a $600 check every month to pay his child support.

But only $50 of that amount actually made it to Hampton’s family; the rest was sent back to the government to repay the cost of public assistance.

The family could have used the extra cash, Hampton said. He recalled days with the electricity turned off, selling candy and pumping gas to make ends meet, and school outings he couldn’t go to because they didn’t have enough money.

…“Once it becomes a debt owed to the government, that money never gets sent to the child,” says Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which co-sponsored the bills. “It’s kind of the original sin of the child support system we have in place today, which is, how do we call it a child support system where none of that money goes back to the child?”

Read more

Lawsuit: Los Angeles Overcharges Poor Probationers

At the legal clinic run by A New Way of Life, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides shelter and services to formerly incarcerated women and their children, attorneys noticed a concerning pattern.

Community members who served jail or prison time persistently told attorneys that they “were being charged excessive amounts for the cost of probation, amounts that they couldn’t ever hope to repay,” said C.T. Turney-Lewis, the group’s supervising staff attorney. Oftentimes, they “have no income and were leaving probation with thousands and thousands of dollars in outstanding costs.”

…The criminal justice-related fees assessed by California counties are among the highest in the country, with Los Angeles topping the list, according to a study by the Western Center on Law & Poverty, an advocacy group of legal scholars. 

Read more

Western Center Submits Comments Opposing SNAP Categorical Eligibility Rule Proposal

The comment period has ended for the USDA’s proposed rule to end a long-standing and widely used rule that eases the application and retention burden for families in need of food assistance. If implemented, the change could impact over 120,000 California households, most of whom are working, by making them newly ineligible for SNAP food assistance.

An excerpt from Western Center’s comments:

The Western Center on Law and Poverty is deeply concerned by attempts to restrict food assistance to the individuals whom we and our partners serve in California. We strongly support the twin goals of preventing hunger and supporting economic mobility, both of which are best achieved when states can account for high housing, child care and health care costs, and help SNAP participants save money to weather financial setbacks. We believe that the Administration’s proposed changes to categorical eligibility will work in opposition to these goals. If the proposed rule goes into effect, it will cause an estimated 250,000 to 345,800 Californians, who are already struggling to meet their basic needs, to lose their SNAP benefits. Hunger does not help anyone exit poverty and, in fact, has been proven to do the opposite: to leave children and adults alike to experience long and short-term consequences of poor nutrition that undermines their wellbeing and economic security. We respectfully request that the Administration consider the comments in our letter and the information in the attached appendices, and that the Administration withdrawal the proposed rule from consideration.

Western Center’s full comments can be read here.

The federal government can help with California’s homelessness crisis, but not Trump’s way

By Anya Lawler, Western Center Housing Policy Advocate 

Lately, President Trump has developed a keen interest in California’s homelessness crisis. On his fundraising trip through the state, the president expressed concern for the impact the crisis has on wealthy foreign real estate investors, and on “our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings.”

Notably absent from his concern is the one group that feels the impact of the crisis most—people who struggle to survive every day without a roof over their head. President Trump seems uninterested in humane, compassionate solutions, or ensuring that the federal government is fulfilling its responsibility by providing the resources needed to make sure everyone has safe, stable, affordable housing.

Instead, there are hints that the President is pursuing policies that would further criminalize homelessness and treat human beings struggling with poverty as objects to be warehoused out of view. This continues the Trump administration’s cruel pattern of using a humanitarian crisis as an excuse to remove people’s constitutional freedoms, and then blaming those hit hardest by the crisis for being there in the first place.

None of us should be surprised. The administration has introduced one heartless policy after another that, if implemented, would undoubtedly increase homelessness in California and beyond. A few examples:

  • The proposed DHS Public Charge Rule, which will hamper economic mobility and increase poverty by scaring immigrant families away from using crucial programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which help children and families exit poverty and prevent subsequent harm.
  • The proposed new HUD Mixed Status Rule, which will force families to make an impossible choice between removing family members from their household or losing needed housing assistance.
  • The proposed weakening of the HUD Disparate Impact Rule, which will limit housing opportunity by making it easier to discriminate against members of protected classes. If implemented, the rule will have a direct impact on the homelessness crisis by facilitating discrimination against people experiencing homelessness.
  • The proposed changes to the HUD Equal Access Rule, which flies in the face of proven solutions, and creates unnecessary barriers for accessing shelter, directly contributing to an increase in the rate of unsheltered homelessness.
  • The proposed rule changes to SNAP Time Limit Regulations and SNAP Categorical Eligibility Rules, requiring people to make the impossible choice between food and money for housing.

Rather than pursuing misguided and ineffective efforts that dehumanize people and undermine their ability to succeed, Trump could make far more of an impact by removing these deeply problematic rules from consideration, and instead focusing on proven solutions to prevent and reduce homelessness.

While the causes of California’s homelessness crisis are complex and deeply rooted in racial and economic inequality, one crucial part of the solution is housing people can afford. Homelessness will not end in California without a drastic increase in the supply of housing affordable to households with low incomes. The vast majority of funding for that kind of housing is controlled by the federal government.

Stable affordable housing—both with and without supportive services—ensures that vulnerable families and individuals don’t become homeless, assists the legions who have already lost housing, and allows chronically homeless individuals to receive the services they need to stay off the street. California’s dramatic housing shortage is catastrophic for lower-income people; it will take sustained and substantial funding to turn it around.

There is little chance the state can remedy the affordable housing shortage without a significant increase in federal resources. But rather than address the chronic underfunding of federal housing programs that are critical to serving people with the lowest incomes, the Trump administration is pursuing cuts. Rather than increasing the number of Housing Choice Vouchers available in California so eligible households aren’t stuck on years-long waiting lists, the administration remains focused on cutting HUD’s budget and applying problematic Fair Market Rent calculations that add to the challenge of voucher utilization. Rather than ensuring families are stably housed so that they can focus on improving their economic well-being, he remains focused on tearing families apart and punishing them for using the public assistance intended to prevent the many harms caused by poverty.

More policing is not a solution to homelessness. It is not a crime to be poor. It is not a crime to lack adequate shelter. What is criminal is a country as wealthy as ours, where there are resources to humanely address homelessness and knowledge of how to do so effectively, with a president who is more interested in using the homelessness crisis for political gain. We encourage and invite the president to change course and join us in the pursuit of real solutions.