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Western Center intervention helps Oakland tenants avoid eviction after U.S. Marshals seize property

Western Center attorney Madeline Howard got the call from an attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza on a Friday. The attorney’s clients had eviction notices from U.S. Marshals informing them that they were to vacate their homes the following week.


The tenants had done nothing wrong, but their landlord faces federal charges, so the government seized his assets — including rental properties. Initially, the Marshals had the tenants sign a lease that listed the Marshals as landlord. That lasted for almost a year, until a buyer came along who wanted the property vacated. 


After receiving the request for assistance, attorneys at Western Center worked with Centro Legal over the following two weeks to stop eviction proceedings, which ultimately allowed the clients to remain in their homes. It was a whirlwind two weeks that illustrates Western Center’s skill in providing support to community clinics so people receive the protection they need.


-U.S. Marshals turned landlords-


The situation started back in February 2018, when U.S. Marshals seized landlord Yaniv Gonar’s properties in response to federal charges for running an illegal slot machine ring. For almost a year, the tenants paid rent to the Marshals, and everything continued on as usual until January 2019, when the tenants noticed a piece of paper on their door – it was a forfeiture complaint.


It’s clear that the federal government knew there were tenants in Gonar’s properties, because a FBI interview in the criminal complaint determined that the tenants were innocent and knew nothing of Gonar’s business. Nevertheless, the only action the government took to warn the tenants of their impending eviction was to stick an English-only copy of the complaint to the front door of the multi-family homes —  Spanish is the tenants’ primary language. The notices didn’t have the tenants’ names on them, and had very small font — nothing to indicate to the tenants that they needed to do something, or that the notice was for them.


Western Center attorney Madeline Howard says the situation was particularly disturbing, because the federal government was treating the tenants the same way other abusive landlords treat people. “One of the big trends we see is new owners emptying out rent-controlled buildings occupied by long term tenants who are often people of color, people with disabilities, and other protected classes, in order to market to young, wealthy, white people. In this case, it was the federal government doing the displacing.”


-Western Center steps in-


Howard and her colleagues at Western Center dove into mounds of legal research to find out if there was precedent for U.S. Marshals kicking out tenants in this way — especially in a municipality like Oakland with strong tenant protections. “We advised Centro Legal that we should be proactive in signaling our willingness to intervene in the federal forfeiture action, rather than waiting to do something after the tenants were evicted.”


Howard and the attorney from Centro Legal called the U.S. Attorney to tell them that they viewed the actions by the U.S. Marshals to be illegal under California law. “It wasn’t clear whether the Marshals were purposefully not following the law, or if they were just not paying attention to the law,” Howard explained.


At first, the U.S. Attorney said he was unfamiliar with the situation, but in the days following that phone call, and an hour before Centro Legal was to meet with the tenants, the U.S. Attorney emailed to say the eviction notices would be rescinded. Instead of preparing documents for court, the tenants got the news that they would not be evicted.


Western Center’s intervention changed the course of events in this case. The lawyer at Centro Legal was not federally registered, so having attorneys at Western Center as partners who were knowledgeable and prepared to take on federal proceedings made a world of difference in the subsequent interactions with the U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshals.


Now there is a new owner of the building, and according to Howard, “The tenants are as secure as tenants can be in the current climate.” If there is a problem with the new landlord in the future, the tenants have attorneys, and their new landlords know that.


Medical credit cards purport to ease medical cost burdens, but end up creating stress. A new Western Center-sponsored bill could change that

By Jen Flory, Western Center Health Policy Advocate

For many medical consumers, medical credit cards are offered as a way to pay for unexpected medical costs not covered by insurance. Those costs can include trips to the dentist, chiropractors, and veterinarians. Most people know how quickly medical bills can upend a person’s finances, so medical credit cards can seem like a good deal – especially when they are presented with a zero percent introductory rate.

The tricky part about medical credit cards, and what many consumers of the cards misunderstand, is that while they enjoy that zero percent rate for a period of time, when the introductory period is up, they will not only pay a higher rate (which is to be expected), but they will also face deferred interest. Deferred interest provisions allow card issuers to charge interest on the entire original balance, regardless of how much is paid off during the introductory period. That extra interest adds an unexpected burden for the medical consumer who thought they were doing something to help with their medical bills.

For example, if a consumer puts $1,000 on their card and pays off $900 by the end of the introductory period, the new 26.99% interest rate will be charged not on the remaining $100 balance, but on the original $1,000. The consumer will end up paying $269.90 in interest on a $100 balance.

To add insult to injury, many people are encouraged to sign up for medical credit cards while they are awaiting services in treatment rooms. Without the time and means to research alternatives, and in such stressful circumstances, consumers don’t have the opportunity to fully understand what they are signing up for.

Consumers have also reported being signed up for credit cards while sitting in a dental chair about to get treatment, or for dental services that could have been covered by Medi-Cal. Many Medi-Cal recipients are still being charged for dental services in spite of the restoration of dental services for adults with Medi-Cal. In some cases, the needed services are not covered by Medi-Cal; in other cases, Medi-Cal services are available to treat the condition, but patients are upsold more expensive services, which often end up on medical credit cards.

In 2009, AB 171 (Jones) was passed to require dentists to give notices prior to signing a patient up for a credit card to pay for services. In 2014, SB 1256 (Mitchell) expanded those rules to any licensed health care provider. While the law does provide for basic patient notification, few consumers understand how deferred interest provisions work, so they are shocked by high interest charges later added to their account.

To protect medical consumers, Senator Holly Mitchell has introduced SB 639, which would prohibit medical providers from offering products with deferred interest provisions, and would prohibit them from signing patients up for medical credit cards in treatment areas. The bill would also require providers that accept Medi-Cal to explain to patients what Medi-Cal does and does not cover, and it would require language in the notices about medical credit cards to be written at a 6th grade reading level.

Third-party financing may have a place when patients need services they cannot immediately pay for, but more must be done to protect consumers. Products with ‘gotcha’ clauses like deferred interest have no place in a medical practice. Consumers should never feel pressured into applying for medical credit cards, and they should always understand what they are signing up for — especially since their health and wellbeing is on the line.

GUEST POST: I went without meals in college. Now I’m advocating to put an end to student hunger on campus.

By Yesenia Jimenez

I am far too familiar with the realities of growing up poor and hungry in the U.S. When I was young, my family of seven shared one room, and I shared a twin-sized mattress with my older sister until I was in the 8th grade. Going to college felt like a reach, but my mother and high school mentors never stopped believing in me and encouraging me.

I enrolled in Pasadena City College (PCC) after graduating from high school. I traveled for two hours on the Metro to get to school every morning. Some nights, I wouldn’t get home until 11 pm.

My peers and counselors didn’t know that when I was on campus, I regularly skipped meals because I didn’t have enough money to purchase food from the cafeteria. To get through the day, I usually depended on the free food that student clubs and local churches offered students.

I was grateful for community college since my tuition was fully waived, but I struggled to purchase expensive books and materials with financial aid. Back home our family couldn’t afford to pay for Wi-Fi, so staying on campus for long hours felt like my only option. Food seemed like the easiest expense to cut, but doing so caused constant hunger and a feeling of anxiety when I was in the classroom.

When I graduated from PCC, I transferred to UC Davis. I thought transferring would solve many of the financial problems I faced at community college; I thought universities offered meal plans as part of their financial aid packages, but that assumption turned out to be wrong. At UC Davis, I found myself struggling to find enough money to pay for housing and food.

Looking for help back home was not an option — in fact, there were many times I needed to send money home. At my lowest point, during the summer quarter of 2016, I ran into delayed financial aid problems. I was a full-time student with a part-time research job, and I had $20 in my bank account with no secure housing for the next couple of weeks.

I broke down in the middle of campus and called my mother. She cried with me, and I know she felt helpless because all she could send was a couple of extra dollars. That weekend, I met up with my campus fellowship mentor and shared my frustration and anxiety with her. She immediately opened her home to me, expected nothing in return. She was a godsend.

I consider myself fortunate because I know many students don’t have someone to turn to. It shouldn’t take “fortune” for students to stop experiencing hunger. My biggest regret is not looking further into SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) during my college years; it is my hope that students experiencing hunger will have improved access and information about government assistance benefits.

Student hunger on college campuses is a problem that is growing across California, and across the country. As the cost of living increases, wages stagnate, and more first generation students enter college, the need to provide students with support so they don’t experience hunger is crucial. For low-income students, college is a pathway out of generational poverty; the last thing students investing in their future need to worry about is where their next meal will come from.

At the request of lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in January recommending the government take steps to find out how many college students are hungry across the country, and to clarify SNAP student eligibility rules. I traveled to Washington DC to share my experience with lawmakers as they begin to seek solutions to this issue.

I’m glad the issue of student hunger on campus is gaining attention, but it’s critical that immediate solutions are available for students.

Fortunately, advocates like Western Center have been working on this issue for years, and have made progress in implementing solutions. Last year, Western Center was a lead co-sponsor for AB 1894 (Weber) in California, which allows colleges and universities to run CalFresh Restaurant Meals Programs to address student hunger.

The passage of AB 1894 built on the previous four years of policy victories in the area. The first was AB 1930 (Skinner) in 2014, which required the California Department of Social Services to identify which student jobs could be considered training programs, so they could be exempt from the student work rule that prohibited receipt of SNAP benefits.

Additionally, Western Center and a coalition of anti-hunger and student rights advocates called for continued and increased funding for the Hunger Free Campus Initiative in the 2018-19 Budget Act. The request was set at $5 Million for the UC System, $5 Million for the CSU System and $20 Million for Community Colleges. The final Budget Act investments approved $10 Million for Community Colleges, but failed to fully fund both the UC and CSU System Programs, awarding each only $1.5 Million.

Western Center’s continued commitment to fighting for increased funding for this work will have a significant impact for students across the state, and serves as a model for ways other states can address student hunger. Hopefully, with its new Governor and with increased federal interest, California will take the necessary steps to fully fund programs to eradicate student hunger in the state.

Ending hunger on college campuses will require sustainable solutions across financial aid and college systems, targeted toward the most vulnerable students. That means we must invest in students where they are at, and do everything in our power to make sure they have access to the tools and resources they need to nourish their minds and bodies.

I am thankful for the help I received on my quest for higher education. Now I want to make sure every student has the opportunity to invest in their education without the debilitating burden of hunger.



Yesenia is currently an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute working on Strategies to Reduce Student Hunger on Mass Campuses. Originally from South Central Los Angeles, Yesenia moved into the Ramona Gardens Housing Projects in Boyle Heights, CA, where her pursuit for social justice grew. While at Western Center, her work on school lunch shaming led to the successful passage of Senate Bill 250 and district-wide policy change within Los Angeles Unified School District. Her work serves as a framework for advocates seeking legislation against school lunch shaming.



Western Center housing legislation paves the way for state lawsuit against the City of Huntington Beach

By the Western Center on Law & Poverty Housing Team

Last week, the Newsom Administration announced legal action against the City of Huntington Beach on the claim that the city intentionally violated state housing law. The city has long ignored its obligation to meaningfully plan for and provide housing access to its residents across all income levels, even when the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) offered resources and help to get the city into compliance. Now, under authority provided by a Western Center co-sponsored bill, the California Attorney General is poised to move forward with litigation against the city to enforce the law.

Under California law, all cities and counties must take certain actions to accommodate housing at all income levels to serve existing and future residents. While the law provides flexibility, it does not allow cities and counties to close their borders to growth, or to accommodate only wealthy residents. To ensure that cities and counties are meeting this obligation, they must adopt a general plan, which includes a housing element that analyzes the community’s housing needs and outlines concrete actions—including zoning—to ensure needed housing can be produced.

Part of that commitment includes zoning to allow the development of dense multifamily housing, which is crucial to producing units affordable to lower-income households. Communities must also show how they plan to undo the legacy of racially exclusionary policies like redlining by taking actions to reduce racial and economic segregation. Unfortunately, jurisdictions throughout California have not always complied with the law, which is, in part, how California ended up with a severe shortage of housing relative to its population — a shortage that is most acute at the lower income levels.

To address local jurisdictions’ noncompliance with the state’s planning requirements, Western Center, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and the California Housing Consortium co-sponsored AB 72 (2017), a bill authored by Asm. Miguel Santiago. Under the new law, HCD must notify local governments when they are violating Housing Element Law and other important housing laws and give the city or county time to address the violation. If the jurisdiction declines to take corrective action, HCD can refer the case to the Attorney General for enforcement. The purpose of the law is to ensure that communities not only adopt housing elements that comply with the law, but also that they carry out commitments made in their housing elements.

Historically, the state has rarely enforced its own housing and land use laws against cities seeking to exclude lower-income residents. This lack of enforcement, combined with the actions of Huntington Beach and like-minded cities, inspired Western Center and its partners to advocate for AB 72.

Huntington Beach has a long history of restricting new housing development in its city limits, particularly the higher-density development that is needed to produce affordable units. In spite of warnings from HCD, the city has continued to restrict development opportunities, exacerbating our state’s housing crisis and leaving the community far short of meeting its fair share obligations under Housing Element Law. Huntington Beach is one of many cities that prompted our coalition to advocate for AB 72, so it is unsurprising that it is the first to be sued by the Attorney General for lack of compliance.

We are pleased to see Governor Newsom taking the state’s housing challenges seriously. In a press release from his office, he recognized the importance of addressing our urgent housing crisis. “The huge housing costs and sky-high rents are eroding quality of life for families across this state. California’s housing crisis is an existential threat to our state’s future and demands an urgent and comprehensive response.”

The state’s housing crisis is in fact an existential threat to our state’s stability and well-being. A comprehensive response requires housing for the 1.5 million lowest income households that currently lack affordable housing, and a commitment to ensuring that no person is forced to sleep on the street.

By eliminating the housing shortage for the poorest Californians, we improve the quality of life for all Californians. We are pleased to see Governor Newsom putting AB 72 to use so early in his tenure, because the state will only solve the housing crisis if Huntington Beach and like-minded cities are held accountable. We hope the Governor’s action prompts other municipalities to take their housing obligations seriously.

Change may be scary for homeowners living in places like Huntington Beach who would prefer for things to remain the same, but with the largest population in the U.S. and the world’s 5th largest economy, California cannot afford to remain stagnant. Nothing is scarier than the prospect of losing access to housing, and that is exactly what Californians across the state are facing as housing becomes more scarce. For the people Western Center serves, that access is already largely non-existent.

The enforcement of AB 72 will help ensure that municipalities develop in ways that consider all residents in their jurisdictions. Our state is too big to be exclusionary — we are thrilled that Governor Newsom recognizes that reality, and is willing to utilize the law to take irresponsible local governments to task.




Governor Newsom’s proposed budget will reduce poverty, but Supplemental Security Income recipients are still ignored

By Mike Herald, Director of Policy Advocacy

Governor Newsom’s budget was released last week, and it is receiving well-deserved praise (including from Western Center) as an ambitious step toward creating a more equal California, and addressing the state’s poverty crisis. With bold proposals for ending childhood poverty, expanding health care access to young adults regardless of immigration status, and creating opportunities for families with children to get out of the cycle of poverty, Governor Newsom is sending a clear signal about his intention to take the state’s poverty issues seriously.

Western Center is thrilled with the Governor’s focus on ending poverty, and we look forward to the positive benefits it will have for millions of Californians, but there is one group that the new budget leaves out – Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients.

For many years, Western Center and others have pushed the Legislature and Governor to increase grants to the SSI program. All 1.3 million SSI recipients are living with disabilities, or are too old to work. With few exceptions, they are unable to earn a living and must rely on the grant they get each month to pay their rent, food and utilities.

The Governor’s new budget does not include an increase for the State Supplemental Payment (SSP), which was reduced a decade ago by the Schwarzenegger Administration to the federal minimum of $156 a month. This $77 a month reduction has never been restored, and has dropped one million SSI recipients into poverty as a result.

It has been a rough road for SSI recipients since cuts were made in 2009. In the time since, more than $11 billion has been taken from SSI recipients and put toward building the Rainy Day fund and budget surplus. The state’s budget “success” has been built on the backs of SSI recipients.

A few years ago, a coalition of groups came together to see if we could turn the situation around. The coalition included participants from a wide swath of disability, nutrition, and legal advocacy organizations, senior organizations, and SSI recipients. The coalition, known as Californians for SSI (CA4SSI), turned out for lobby days, budget hearings and committee hearings. Meetings were held repeatedly with the Governor’s office, the Pro Tem office, the Speaker’s office, and the Department of Finance urging them to restore funding for people depending on SSI to survive.

From the beginning, many SSI recipients were involved in every aspect of the coalition’s work — from building the website, to choosing messaging, to raising money — but one recipient in particular stands out, we will call him Mitch. Mitch never missed a call, never missed a hearing, and always spoke from his heart. He told powerful people even more powerful stories about SSI recipients living in their cars who had to depend on food banks every month to eat.

The coalition saw a sliver of success with a cost of living increase of $5 a month, but in spite of our combined efforts, the grants did not get restored. Frustrations began to mount inside the coalition, and many recipients felt that the coalition needed a new strategy.

We continued to lobby the state for an increase in SSI payments, and Mitch continued to show up faithfully, until one lobby day, when it became clear that he had reached a breaking point. Mitch became upset because he didn’t like the way that particular event was organized, and he yelled at staff and subsequently took to social media to criticize the campaign, which he called a failure. Despite efforts to mediate the situation, Mitch remains estranged from the coalition.

Unfortunately, Mitch was not the only SSI recipient who lost hope in our effort to advocate for SSI – many people became frustrated that we were not reaching our goal. The biggest frustration was that despite all of the hearings, meetings, and lobbying, we hadn’t accomplished what we set out to do.

People lost hope – it’s what happens when the least powerful in a society go up against the most powerful and get shut down. Mitch’s reaction was extreme compared to others, but the ache of his disappointment is shared by many SSI recipients and advocates working on the issue.

While this episode was playing out, CA4SSI embarked on a new strategy of repealing a 40-year-old state rule that barred SSI recipients from receiving SNAP food stamp benefits. With strong support from both houses of the Legislature and from Governor Brown, the rule was repealed in 2018. The state is currently working to implement the change, and by this summer, hundreds of thousands of SSI recipients will get SNAP.

This should be a happy ending, but in reality, SSI recipients have still not achieved the justice they deserve. The state is still taking $1 billion a year from SSI recipients, and while getting SNAP is good, less than half of the recipients will be eligible for food assistance. And as Mitch used to testify, there are SSI recipients who are homeless or living in cars because SSI is not enough to pay rent. For SSI recipients who receive SNAP, it won’t prevent homelessness, because SNAP can’t pay the rent.

So here we are, after the release of the boldest and most progressive budget our state has ever seen, while SSI recipients look down the barrel of year 12 of reduced grants. As we proceed into the budget revision process and head into spring, the question remains, will anything change for struggling SSI recipients, or will they once again be ignored?