Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Inspiration to Fight Evictions

Courtney Brown Picture
2015-16 Merit Distinction Honoree, Courtney Brown

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

This week, the 2015-16 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees are guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Golden Gate University School of Law student Courtney Brown, a multi-talented advocate dedicated to the eviction and housing crises facing San Francisco.

Inspiration to Fight Evictions
Courtney Brown, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2015-2016 (Golden Gate University School of Law)

Having a home is deeply rooted in one’s sense of stability and security; however, too often it can be taken away for the financial benefit of others, especially in San Francisco. San Francisco is currently facing the worst housing crisis in recent history. Here, income and housing inequality is growing rapidly. Increasing rents and evictions displace thousands of tenants, many of whom are low-income senior and/or disabled people. Eviction often displaces people from their long-term homes and San Francisco completely. With each eviction, San Francisco loses more of its culture and history.

Clients are the Inspiration

My clients’ desire and strength to fight for their homes and resist the most powerful eviction push in recent history inspires me every day to continue to do this work. Their inspiration is the driving force behind my late night study sessions, what gets me up in the morning after very little sleep, and what pushes me to stand up in front of often hostile judges to strongly advocate for my clients.

I am blessed every day to work alongside clients who have made San Francisco the city it is known to be. It is difficult to imagine the profound loss my clients feel when they lose not only their homes but also the communities in which they have lived for decades. I see just a fraction of the pain and stress in their eyes when they talk about leaving the community in which they grew up and raised their children and grandchildren. From artists and veterans, to seniors and people with disabilities, our city is being “cleansed” of everyone that gives this city the personality that makes it so unique. And yet, these people persevere in the face of struggle. And so do I.

As I continue my career in tenants’ rights law, I will continue to meet amazing people who helped build this city. While assisting clients in the battle to enforce their rights, I am inspired by their stories and their strength in the face of adversity.

One of my first clients was facing an Ellis Action eviction. In short, the Ellis Act is a California law that allows landlords to exit the rental business by evicting all of the tenants at the rental property. Unfortunately, this law that was put in place to assist “mom and pop” landlords, is now being abused by real estate speculators, who use the law to flip the rental property so they can make a profit. This client was a 69-year old Vietnam War Veteran who suffered from PTSD. Due to his condition, he was unable to leave the house for long periods of time, so when I needed to talk to him about his case or have him sign papers, I would always go to his house. He would tell me stories about the war and about the special unit he was assigned to, and no matter how many times we lost a motion in court regarding his eviction he was always looking for the bright side. Luckily, through our perseverance, the landlord, notorious in San Francisco for using the Ellis Act to flip properties, decided the fight was not worth it and dismissed the eviction action.

We Need You to Get Involved

San Francisco’s Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance regulates rent increases, evictions, and habitability standards to protect tenants from unlawful actions by their landlords. However, San Francisco tenants are unable to enforce the protections provided by the Rent Ordinance due to the lack of legal representation available for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. Few evictions occur because tenants lose an unlawful detainer action, but of the few, many are lost on procedural grounds. Instead, the vast majority of evictions in San Francisco occur because tenants are unable to find necessary representation when they are faced with eviction notices alleging false claims or when their landlords harass and intimidate them to leave without a fight.

Landlords in San Francisco have power due to income inequality, limited affordable housing, and lack of legal representation for tenants. The power differential allows landlords to use oral notices or serve eviction notices based on exaggerations and lies. For example, in San Francisco landlords have started using 3-day notices alleging nuisances to quickly evict tenants from their homes. The law surrounding nuisance evictions is very grey which allows for landlords to exaggerate allegations in the eviction notice. When tenants fight evictions through legal representation, they generally stop the eviction. However, many tenants are coerced through lack of resources into leaving their long-term homes without a fight. Additionally, many San Francisco tenants’ rights organizations do not provide tenants with the full-scope representation needed to fight these evictions, and instead provide limited-scope representation which has been found to be less effective in ensuring the tenants retain possession. Full-scope representation is when a client is represented throughout the entire eviction process, and the attorney handles every party of the case from the eviction notice to the trial or appeal of the case. Limited-scope representation is generally ghost-writing of documents for the tenants, including answers, and possibly attending a mandatory settlement conference with the tenant. Evictions can be dramatically reduced if more lawyers provide full-scope representation to low- and moderate-income tenants facing evictions.

There is a desperate need for law students and attorneys to provide full-scope representation to tenants facing evictions in San Francisco. The outcome differential between tenants provided with limited-scope representation and tenants provided with full-scope representation during an eviction is substantial. A study entitled In Pursuit of Justice? Case Outcomes and the Delivery of Unbundled Legal Services by Jessica K. Steinberg published in The Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law and Policy found that unrepresented tenants only retained possession 14% of the time and tenants who received limited-scope or unbundled representation only retained possession 18% of the time, while 55% of fully represented tenants were able to retain possession of their homes. The study also found that tenants receiving limited-scope representation did not secure more actual relief when fighting the eviction than the unrepresented tenants. To decrease the number of evictions in San Francisco, tenants must be provided with the full-scope representation necessary.

San Francisco continues to lose tenants every day as the city becomes more gentrified. These tenants want to stop this, and they have the desire and strength to push back against the evictions that are taking their homes. However, for them to be able to fully fight back and enforce the protections they are provided under the Rental Ordinance, they need attorney allies who can provide the necessary representation. Full-scope representation can only be provided if law students and attorneys contribute pro bono services in housing law.

Communities across the country need you to help us stop evictions and community fragmentation by getting involved with eviction defense work during law school. It will not only provide representation to someone facing eviction, it will also provide you with valuable experience, skill, and inspiration to carry forward into your career.

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