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The California Judicial Council and a case study for confronting racism in “neutral” institutions.

Earlier this week, the Judicial Council of California announced it was considering a vote to end the  emergency rule suspending evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement was alarming to housing and anti-poverty advocates, and we quickly raised the alarm about the harm such a move would cause for California communities – particularly Black and Brown renters.

Fortunately, the pressure generated both in public and behind the scenes led the Council to decide against the vote to lift the rule. Western Center played a role in pushing the message that lifting the rule would lead to mass evictions, exacerbating the current public health crisis and existing homelessness crisis, both of which are a direct result of the systemic racial inequality that people in California and across the country are protesting right now.

In a statement released after the decision to suspend the vote, the Council asserted its commitment to racial justice, and acknowledged its role in addressing systems that harm Black Americans:

In our profession and in our daily lives, we must confront the injustices that have led millions to call for a justice system that works fairly for everyone. Each member of this court, along with the court as a whole, embraces this obligation. As members of the legal profession sworn to uphold our fundamental constitutional values, we will not and must not rest until the promise of equal justice under law is, for all our people, a living truth.

The Judicial Council’s proposed action, and its subsequent decision to walk it back, is an important example of how easy it is for our institutions to fall into systemic failures that perpetuate racial injustice, and our duty as advocates to explicitly and forcefully call it out.

The COVID-19 public health crisis is also an economic crisis, especially for Californians, and it disproportionately effects people of color who are most likely to have lost work and their ability to pay rent. The paradox of racial inequality we see in the current economy is that Black and Brown people are more likely to lose their jobs because of the crisis, thereby losing income necessary for housing security, but they are also disproportionately employed in the very jobs that put them in contact with other people, increasing exposure to the coronavirus.

Additionally, and intimately connected to the protests against police violence happening across the globe, evictions always place people of color in direct contact with law enforcement. An estimated 365,000 renter households are in imminent danger of eviction in Los Angeles alone, with disproportionate impact on communities of color.  Evictions are enforced by sheriffs’ offices across the state, and the advancement of eviction proceedings forces law enforcement interaction with people in their homes. More evictions mean more interaction with cops.

While the judicial council decision is important now in the midst of uprising and a continued public health emergency, it is important that we do not lose sight of how eviction laws, in California and the rest of the country, reinforce the racist use of government force against people when they are removed from their homes.

It is important that we as Western Center use this opportunity to highlight the ways “neutral” government institutions can and do perpetuate systems embedded in white supremacy. Most systems continue on because it’s “how things are done,” or it’s “the responsibility of another branch.”

Systems resist change; they are built upon repetition to create efficiencies and consistent results. Systems gain legitimacy based on their own perpetuation. The time has come to acknowledge that the racism baked into American systems is illegitimate.

Our current process of evictions is a system designed for efficient and consistent results for landlords to eject tenants with little regard for the outcome. The restart of this process would have (and will have, should it resume without Legislative intervention) devastating effects on Black and Brown households and communities, especially if there is a rush to resume, and a failure to disrupt the patterns of inequity.

While we agree that checks and balances exist for a reason, we do not agree that means branches of government can cede their responsibility to protect people first and foremost. When the opportunity to protect arises, they must do so, even if that means doing things differently, or in ways they are unaccustomed to. We appreciate that the Council delayed resumption of this process because it creates an opportunity to change our approach to this inherently racist system. The times we are in call for thoughtful, longer term solutions, starting with items like our co-sponsored bill, AB 1436.

To move our state and country forward, things MUST be done differently. Otherwise, we will continue to capitulate to the white supremacy this country and state were both founded upon. We expect this conversation and these kind of actions to continue to take place, from the Judiciary, to the Legislature, to the Governor, and within our own organization. This is only the beginning.

Extra Edition: Rent Prices Drop in Top Housing Market.

“The coronavirus pandemic is impacting the rent market in the San Francisco Bay Area at levels not seen in many years. Many people are moving out because of mass layoffs, job loss, and permanent remote work, causing rent prices to drop. What’s the long-term impact of coronavirus on the most expensive housing market in the country?”

Western Center housing advocate Sasha Harnden interviewed in Spanish.

Listen here



PRESS RELEASE: Sweeping tenant protection bill introduced as California renters face COVID-19 pandemic and worst economic downturn in modern history


Sacramento, CA – Housing justice organizations have come together to sponsor AB 1436—legislation that prevents evictions and provides security to renters who are enduring a global pandemic and the worst economic downturn in modern history. Authored by Assemblymember David Chiu, the bill will keep millions of renters housed, especially Black and Brown tenants who have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19 and are more likely to be rent-burdened than any other community.

In response to local and statewide shelter-in-place orders, wide swaths of the economy were abruptly shut down in mid-March. Millions of Californians were suddenly out of work and months later most remain so. The impact of that sudden economic upheaval has been devastating for renters, especially for lower-income households. Before the pandemic, 8 out of 10 extremely low-income households and over 5 out of 10 very low-income renters were paying more than half their income in rent. Suddenly faced with no or drastically lowered income, their housing situation is now even more precarious.

Unless the Legislature acts, those same households face a second upheaval when the emergency period is over: a tidal wave of evictions for non-payment of rent. Although the courts have paused the processing of evictions, once that resumes, many households hit by sudden unemployment will face a swift eviction action.

The eviction court is not the place to address this unprecedented economic crisis. It is inhumane and counter-productive to California’s recovery efforts to force tenants from their homes for inability to pay rent during a time period when our entire society is experiencing severe economic challenges. The eviction process is a specialized court process designed to deal with possession of housing – not the collection of unpaid rent. AB 1436 will protect renters from mass evictions, separating the questions of eviction and rent, and create a legal framework for the repayment of rent that is fair to tenants and landlords. The bill:

  • Provides that a tenant cannot be evicted due to unpaid rent accrued during the COVID-19 emergency or 90 days following the emergency. The bill does not alter the obligation to pay rent after the emergency period and allows for normal evictions for future missed rent.
  • Gives tenants 15 months from the end of the COVID-19 emergency declaration to pay in full or arrange for voluntary repayment before unpaid rent is considered in default, and protects tenants’ credit and ability to rent in the future. After this period, landlords may use normal civil remedies for pursuing consumer debt.
  • Allows tenants and landlords to make voluntary written repayment arrangements, provided the agreements don’t lead to the renter owing more than the amount of unpaid rent due from the COVID-19 period, and requires landlords to account for any assistance they have received if they enter such an agreement or pursue collection of the debt.

“COVID-19 didn’t create California’s housing crisis,” said Chione L. Flegal, Managing Director at PolicyLink. “Our broken housing system has been harming low-income people and people of color for generations. The economic and health emergencies brought on by the pandemic have exacerbated the problem. People already struggling to make ends meet now face a nearly impossible decision: either pay their rent or buy the food and medicine needed to survive. AB 1436 is a critical tool to support economic recovery and ensure that when the COVID emergency ends, the households who have been hit hardest by do not also face the risk of eviction.”

“Right now there are no effective protections for California renters in the aftermath of the COVID crisis. A vast number of renters are the same Black and Brown community members that so many leaders claim to stand with. This is the Legislature’s chance to step up and protect communities of color,” said Matthew Warren, Housing Attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “AB 1436 is the state’s chance to avoid mass evictions and the devastating consequences that will flow from them.”

“AB 1436 will provide housing stability to renters across the state who are financially impacted by the global pandemic,” said Ashley Werner, senior attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “Now more than ever, California must exercise bold leadership to protect and advance the rights of its most vulnerable residents in order to lay the foundation for an equitable recovery. Millions of Californians can’t pay their bills right now, don’t have enough to eat and are afraid for their health. They shouldn’t be forced to live with the threat of eviction as well.”

The bill is co-sponsored by California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Housing Now!, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, PolicyLink, Public Advocates Inc., Public Counsel, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Courtney McKinney, Western Center on Law and Poverty, cmckinney[at]

Duc Luu, Public Advocates Inc., dluu[at]


Commentary: Revised budget puts older Californians, communities at risk

No one expected good news when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the May Revision of the California budget. As the COVID-19 pandemic obliterates plans and economies, there was no expectation that California’s budget would go unscathed. However, we never predicted the biggest blow would go to California’s older adults.


PRESS RELEASE: Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against USDA For Denying Emergency Food Assistance To Californians With Greatest Need



Lawsuit says USDA’s SNAP emergency allotment denials violate the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is illegally denying emergency food aid to those most in need, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today in San Francisco. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers represent a proposed class of Californians with the lowest incomes seeking an immediate injunction of USDA guidance that denies them emergency food assistance via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, Calfresh in California). The plaintiffs and the class are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Impact Fund.

In response to the public health crisis presented by COVID-19, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of this year. The Act sought to address rising food insecurity and hunger with significant additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to issue additional payments to all households currently receiving SNAP benefits, which states must apply for. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA denied the additional benefits for individuals and families already receiving the regular maximum allotment, or in other words, those with the least income.

“The cost of food has increased across the United States and here in California during the pandemic,” says Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The idea that people who were already struggling to get by before the crisis should not receive the additional help being granted to other SNAP recipients is cruel and absurd. It goes against the intent of the Families First Act, which is why we are seeking relief for our clients.”

The complaint alleges that USDA is illegally denying emergency food aid to the poorest households in California, and seeks to stop USDA from preventing California from providing emergency allotments for the plaintiffs and others in the class.

Both plaintiffs, Robin Hall and Steven Summers, are single adults in high risk groups for complications from COVID-19, who have been denied emergency food benefits. Both have decreased access to food due to the pandemic.

People with very low incomes, like Ms. Hall and Mr. Summers, face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the COVID crisis. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand to avoid frequent grocery trips, and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended, under-resourced, or closed altogether.

“I’m using what savings I have to try to keep up with these rising food costs. After that, there isn’t enough left to pay rent and utilities,” says Mr. Summers. “If I’m having a hard time, I know others are too. We can’t control what this pandemic is doing to the cost of living, with all that’s going on, we need expanded benefits to help with the rising cost of everything, including food.”

One of the most immediate and urgent problems arising from the pandemic is hunger. Food prices are higher, many food staples are scarce, and shelter-in-place orders make food less accessible, particularly for those most vulnerable to the health risks of the coronavirus.

“We are simply asking USDA to do the right thing,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at Impact Fund. “The federal government has a responsibility to make sure people in this country do not go hungry during this pandemic. USDA needs to do its part.”

The complaint can be read here.



Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]

Teddy Basham-Witherington, twitherington[at]


About The Impact Fund

We provide strategic leadership and support for litigation to achieve economic and social justice. We provide funds for impact litigation in the areas of civil rights, environmental justice, and poverty law. We offer innovative technical support, training, and expertise on issues that arise in large scale impact litigation. We serve as lead counsel, co-counsel, and amicus counsel in select class action and impact litigation.

About Western Center on Law & Poverty
Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for low-income Californians. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.