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Lawsuit Says California Discriminated Against Tenants In Emergency Rental Assistance Program

Western Center senior attorney Lorraine Lopez was on KPFA Radio in the Bay Area to discuss the lawsuit Western Center and our partners filed on behalf of tenant groups, accusing California’s Department of Housing and Community Development of discrimination and denying Californians due process in applications for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).

Listen Here (Interview starts at one hour 34 minute mark)

 

Housing is the foundation for healthy people and communities. California needs a fundamentally new approach to keep people safely housed.

COVID-19 has been with us for nearly two years, and in California we’ve gone through a dizzying rollercoaster of eviction protections, ranging from robust – the Judicial Council’s emergency order stopping all but emergency evictions, to nonsensical – the March 2020 executive order billed as an eviction moratorium that had little actual effect.

Tenants and advocates have been tirelessly demanding simpler, more robust eviction protections that will last until the state distributes billions in rental assistance funds to eligible tenants and landlords. These demands were ignored, and evictions are now rolling forward while tenants continue to wait for the funds to be distributed. At the same time, the number of Californians experiencing homelessness continues to rise. This continually evolving crisis also highlights the ways evictions are another form of racialized violence that harm communities of color much more than others; in particular, Black people are disproportionately likely to be evicted and experience homelessness.

In California, about 17 million people rent their homes. Any of those people could be kicked out of their home in a matter of weeks under our current eviction laws — even if they have lived in their home for 30 years, if they are a person with a disability, or if they are elderly and in poor health and it’s the middle of winter. Renters are constantly vulnerable because our system prioritizes the rights of property owners over basic human needs.

During the pandemic, public health researchers demonstrated through exhaustive research what tenants and advocates already know – people who are evicted are also more likely to die. Children experiencing eviction do poorly in school, impacting the trajectory of their lives. Pregnant women suffer greater mortality and have worse health outcomes. Evictions lead to profound mental health problems that persist even after the tenant finds new housing. An eviction is not a blip in a life; it is a catastrophic event that can take people from barely making it to not making it at all.

The legislature passed AB 832 this summer, the third in a series of complicated eviction protection laws intended to stop evictions for tenants eligible for rental assistance. While the bill has protected some tenants, many people remain vulnerable to losing their homes. State rental assistance is rolling out far too slowly and tens of thousands of eligible tenants are still waiting for help to arrive.

Tenant attorneys and advocates are trying to defend tenants from eviction for rental debt that should be covered by the billions of dollars California received from the federal government, but the money is moving too slowly, and courts are processing eviction cases without checking to see if the landlord is being paid through the rental assistance fund. The law is so complicated that tenants have little chance of defending themselves without an attorney, and even with an attorney, tenants eligible for rental assistance can still be evicted even while their landlord receives the money they are owed.

As a result, people who should be protected by these laws are becoming homeless. Those who lose their homes will, more likely than not, also be those who took the brunt of COVID’s devastation – people of color, people with disabilities, elderly people, and families with young children. These are Californians who just want to keep a roof over their head — those who lost jobs during COVID or had to stay home to care for children who suddenly had no physical school; those who got sick themselves or had to care for sick family members.

The complex, layered web of protections that evolved throughout the pandemic all just highlight one fundamental truth: the entire system we use to provide housing, and to take it away, is utterly unjust and broken. COVID must be a wake-up call for us all that this system doesn’t make sense.

Thanks to AB 1482, the Tenant Protection Act passed in 2019, most tenants have existing protection from so called “no cause” evictions — when the landlord simply kicks you out without stating a reason. Despite these protections, a tenant can still be removed from their home if they are late for even part of a month’s rent. With only three days’ notice, landlords can proceed with an eviction case, even for a long-term tenant who follows all the rules.

Without enough attorneys to assist them, tenants facing eviction will often just move out because they are afraid to go through the court process alone. Our entire legal system is based on the premise that a landlord’s right to evict someone from the property they own is fundamental and critical. Even when the landlord is a giant multinational corporation that owns tens of thousands of units, their right to evict is treated as primary; meanwhile for the family who lives in that home, the “property” is the center of their life, community, access to work, school, and medical care. All of that can be taken away from California tenants with only three days’ notice.

It benefits all of us as a society to remake this system to protect people’s basic right to a safe home. Many people are working to do just that, through the movement for social housing and Tenant Opportunity to Purchase legislation (like in Berkeley, Oakland and Los Angeles). In California, we must work to make fundamental, long-term reforms based on the basic premise that affordable, stable housing is a necessary foundation for healthy communities. Evictions should be a rare occurrence that only happen as a last resort.

 

Western Center’s 2021 Legislative Wrap-Up 

The  2021 California legislative season is over, and Governor Newsom has signed the bills that will become law. Many Western Center priorities made it past the governor’s pen, including groundbreaking legislation like SB 62, which makes California an international leader in the fight to end exploitation of people working in the garment industry, and SB 65, which implements proven interventions to lower California’s unacceptably high mortality rate for Black and Indigenous people who give birth here. 

Below is our slate of co-sponsored bills that were signed by the governor this year, as well as those we plan to bring back next year.


HIGHLIGHTS

SB 62 – The Garment Worker Protection Act seeks to end wage theft in the California garment industry and ensure decent wages for California garment workers by holding California fashion brands to a higher standard of responsibility for the labor of garment workers.  

SB 65 – The California Momnibus is an innovative and comprehensive piece of legislation that reimagines perinatal care in order to close existing racial gaps in maternal and infant mortality and morbidity within the state. 


FINANCIAL SECURITY

AB 461 – CalWORKs Self Employment: Creates a more accessible pathway for CalWORKs recipients to choose self-employment as a work activity. This bill is timely as the state begins to rebuild its economy, which will heavily rely on the talents and creativity of Californians with an entrepreneurial spirit. 


HEALTH

AB 326 – Removes the sunset clause to permanently extend the Consumer Protection Program, which awards advocacy fees to any person or organization that represents the interests of consumers and has made a substantial contribution on regulations, orders, or decisions, within the Department of Managed Health Care.

AB 1020 – Enforcement of the Hospital Fair Pricing Act: We hope that passage of this bill means patients no longer need lawyers to benefit from the Hospital Fair Pricing Act. This bill rose directly out of our legal services partners’ experience in trying to enforce the Hospital Fair Pricing Act. Major components include prohibiting hospitals from selling debt to debt buyers unless they meet all the current standards applicable to debt collectors and agree to take a bill back if the patient should have gotten financial assistance, Medi-Cal, or another payor for their bill; requiring debt collectors and debt buyers to also send patients applications for financial assistance; and increasing eligibility for patients for financial assistance from 350% of the poverty level to 400%.

AB 1355 (2-Year Bill Extending Into Next Year) – Expands Independent Medical Reviews to all Medi-Cal beneficiaries to ensure more beneficiaries can access medically necessary care. Also improves the state’s fair hearing process. 

SB 644 (2-Year Bill Extending Into Next Year) – Allows California’s unemployment department to share information with Covered California when someone applies for or loses benefits to help individuals apply for Covered California or Medi-Cal.


HOUSING

AB 832 – Extended the temporary halt on evictions for nonpayment of rent until September 31, 2021. The bill also created additional tenant protections in court that may halt an eviction if the tenant qualifies and has an approved application for rent relief. For more information, please refer to our COVID-19 tenant relief fact sheet. To apply for financial assistance please visit housingiskey.com.

AB 838 – Enforcement Response to Housing Complaints: Prohibits local code inspection agencies in California from implementing restrictions or preconditions before responding to tenant habitability complaints. The bill specifically prohibits code enforcement agencies from refusing to inspect a unit based on unreasonable conditions, including on the basis that the tenant is behind on rent, is alleged to be in violation of their lease, or is currently in an unlawful detainer (eviction) or other legal dispute with the landlord.

AB 1304 – Affirmatively Further Fair Housing: Strengthens requirements for cities and counties to analyze and proactively address fair housing issues as part of their obligation to affirmatively further fair housing. The bill requires the housing element to include an analysis of how the jurisdiction’s inventory of housing affirmatively furthers fair housing; requires that in assessing contributing factors to fair housing issues, jurisdictions look through both a local and a regional lens, take race into account, and examine historical context; and requires jurisdictions to state explicit goals, objectives, and policies related to affirmatively furthering fair housing. 

SB 91 – Expanded protections provided by AB 3088 (2020) and established a statewide rental relief program that pays up to 100% of arrears, prospective rent, and utilities for households experiencing COVID-19 financial hardships. The bill also extended a temporary halt on evictions for nonpayment of rent until June 2021. SB 91 prohibited landlords from charging or attempting to charge late fees and explicitly prohibits the sale or assignment of any unpaid COVID-19 rental debt. 

Victory for COVID Tenant Protections in Los Angeles

In an opinion issued last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the City of Los Angeles’ COVID-related tenant protections and affirmed the City’s ability to protect tenants from becoming unhoused during a pandemic that has claimed over 600,000 lives in the United States.

The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge, on constitutional grounds, the city’s ability to enact COVID-related tenant protections during the local emergency period: one barring evictions for nonpayment of rent or certain lease violations for COVID-related reasons and one barring rent increases for rent control units.

Western Center, along with Public Counsel, The Public Interest Law Project, and Susman Godfrey LLP, represent two tenants’ rights organizations, ACCE Action and Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE), who successfully intervened in the lawsuit to help defend the ordinances. Since the lawsuit was filed, California enacted rental protections, recently extended by AB 832, which overlap significantly with the eviction protection ordinance. While state law goes further to protect tenants in some ways, the City’s ordinance goes further in others.

After United States District Court Judge Dean Pregerson denied the Apartment Association’s motion to stop the ordinances, the Association appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the ordinances interfered with contracts between individual landlords and tenants, and that the City’s actions were unreasonable.

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit panel stated, “the district court did not err in determining that the moratorium’s provisions were reasonable and appropriate given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic,” as “[t]he City fairly ties the moratorium to its stated goal of preventing displacement from homes, which the City reasonably explains can exacerbate the public health-related problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The ordinances do not “cancel” rental obligations – tenants are still on the hook for rent, but they can’t be evicted for nonpayment while the ordinance is in effect. The Apartment Association argued that delayed payment bolstered its Contracts Clause claim. The Court rejected that argument, stating, “[T]here is no apparent ironclad constitutional rule that eviction moratoria pass Contracts Clause scrutiny only if rent is paid during the period of the moratoria[.]”

Additionally, noting the establishment of federal, state, and local rental relief programs, the Court stated that the existence of such programs “further undermine AAGLA’s Contracts Clause challenge.”

This lawsuit is one of many that landlords have filed to challenge emergency eviction protections across the country. In fact, a landlords’ challenge to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s Temporary Protection from Eviction was reviewed by the United States Supreme Court, which issued a ruling on August 26th stating that the CDC exceeded its authority, and therefore suspended the Temporary Protection.

While we disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling for the reasons stated in Justice Breyer’s dissent, it is important to note that the Supreme Court’s majority did not invalidate local and state eviction protections. This decision does not impact California’s state-wide protections or locally enacted tenant protections, including in the City of Los Angeles, which remain in effect.

Landlord challenges to eviction protections continue, even as we face a deadly surge in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant. We hope more landlords and associated entities will shift their energy toward the government agencies tasked with distributing rental relief, and advocate to ensure the funds are being made available to stabilize both tenants and landlords, rather than forcing struggling renters out and onto the streets.

 

PRESS RELEASE: Settlement Reached with USDA to Provide Emergency Food Benefits to One Million California Households Most in Need

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Settlement comes ten months after lawsuit said denial of SNAP Emergency Allotments violated the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Approximately one million California households will soon be permitted to receive emergency food benefits under new USDA guidance, thanks in part to the settlement of the lawsuit Hall v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was filed in the early months of the pandemic. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers are two Californians who were denied emergency food benefits authorized by Congress in March of 2020. In the lawsuit, Hall and Summers argued that USDA illegally denied them and other Californians emergency benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP — CalFresh in California), solely because they already received the maximum regular benefit allotment, which was $194 per month at the time.

“Even before the pandemic, I worked hard to stretch my monthly SNAP benefits to meet my food needs. The pandemic made it much harder to get regular meals,” said Hall. “This emergency assistance will be a huge help to me and many others. I feel so honored to fight for everyone like me. It means so much to me.”

After the emergency benefits were signed into law in March 2020, USDA published guidance denying emergency benefits to households receiving the maximum regular benefit, which are those with the lowest incomes. Both Hall and Summers are single adults in groups at high risk for complications from COVID-19, who struggled to maintain healthy diets during the pandemic but were denied emergency food assistance. They are represented by the Impact Fund and Western Center on Law & Poverty.

Under the terms of yesterday’s settlement, USDA agreed to immediately stop enforcing its guidance on emergency allotments as to California. The same day, USDA issued new guidance announcing a policy change to provide emergency allotments to all households enrolled in SNAP with minimum payments of $95 per month for each household.

“This settlement represents exactly what we were hoping to achieve here in California,” said Lindsay Nako, Impact Fund’s Director of Litigation and Training, who represented Hall and Summers. “USDA’s willingness to settle this lawsuit, as well as the steps the Biden Administration has taken to make emergency food aid available to people with the lowest incomes, is cause for optimism about the future of SNAP – in California and beyond.”

Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of 2020 in response to COVID-19; it was partially meant to address rising food insecurity and hunger by providing additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to approve state requests for emergency allotments to households participating in SNAP. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA initially denied the state’s request because it included benefits for those receiving the maximum regular benefit, which prompted the lawsuit. USDA did not approve California’s request until the state removed households receiving the maximum regular benefit.

Within days of President Biden’s inauguration, the White House issued an executive order and accompanying fact sheet that called on USDA to “[a]llow larger emergency [SNAP] allotments for the lowest-income households,” which would provide enhanced SNAP benefits to an additional 12 million people. The settlement and updated guidance mark a new path forward for USDA.

“We are pleased to see USDA turn the page toward making sure people who need help the most can get it,” said Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center who represented the plaintiffs. “The past year has been incredibly hard for people with very low incomes. This settlement and USDA’s new guidance is a step in a different direction, and we hope for continued efforts to expand, rather than take away, vital safety net programs.”

People with very low incomes continue to face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the pandemic. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended and under-resourced. By acknowledging those realities and providing additional aid so individuals and families can take care of their food needs, USDA is embarking on a more humane path forward for people who rely on its assistance.

“The outcome of this lawsuit counters the mythology that SNAP covers an entire food budget,” said Summers. “Households have to supplement what they receive even in normal times — just because you get the full amount doesn’t mean you are on easy street. Hopefully this lawsuit will be a reminder of this: not enough is not enough, no matter how much you receive. I hope this is a springboard for recognizing the shortcomings in SNAP and making more changes to combat hunger.”

Contact: Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org, (214) 395-2755

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The Impact Fund provides 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.

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 Californians with low income. 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.