San Jose Cuts Off Legal Aid

By Diane Solomon

Sylvia Soledades looks like many women you might see waiting at bus stops, serving people at fast-food counters and walking on city streets with children in strollers. Thirtysomething, her long dark hair is pulled back into a bun; she wears a loose gray sweater over jeans and neat white sneakers. She credits the Legal Aid Society of Santa Clara County for helping keep a roof over her head.

Soledades says she called Legal Aid after her landlord threatened to evict her family of six when her youngest child was 3 days old. Speaking in English and Spanish, she says that their $850-per-month one-bedroom apartment near Alma and Vine streets in San Jose had broken plumbing and was being overrun with cockroaches. She says she called the city to complain, and the landlord was ordered to get the building up to code.

Soon afterward, Soledades says, she received an eviction notice. So she called the Legal Aid Society (LAS). She was put in touch with Alicia Carvajal, a housing counselor, who in turn found her a pro bono attorney. Carvajal coached her through the legal process and went with her to court dates. The judge gave Soledades a cash award equal to one month’s rent and enough time to find a new place to live. “Had Legal Aid not helped me, the sheriffs would have put us out on the street,” she says.

After this week, the nonprofit agency, which helps local renters, may be out of business for good.

Each year, the city of San Jose’s Department of Housing gets money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program. Nonprofits like LAS request grants from this fund for housing-related needs.

In March, the housing department issued its funding recommendations. With applications for grants at nearly four times the available funds, a dozen organizations’ projects were rejected by city staff. Dwindling funding sources and low reserves forced city staffers to knock out groups like the Support Network for Battered Women, the Indian Health Center and the LAS’s housing counseling programs.

Unless Tony Estremera, Legal Aid’s lead attorney, can convince the City Council to do otherwise, come July 1 clients like Soledades will be turned away.

Estremera’s office looks like a smaller, shabbier version of TV attorney Perry Mason’s, with a lot more files piled on his wide desk and the wall-high bookshelf behind it. Estremera is a friendly man who speaks with a slight New York accent. He’s heavy set, fiftysomething, wears a dark, well-cut business suit and has worry lines under his eyes.

He says that for 18 years, the city’s CDBG funding has supported Legal Aid’s housing counseling programs and helped more than 100,000 people resolve landlord-tenant disputes and foreclosure problems by providing them with information, counseling and legal representation.

Estremera says that LAS wasn’t recommended for funding this year because the city is concerned about the agency’s ability to meet its grant responsibilities. He concedes that LAS’s recently audited financial statements don’t show reserves or new funding sources that are required by the program. “But we’ve never had a problem before,” Estremera says, “and our budget shows we won’t have a problem over this next year or in the future.” Estremera filed an unsuccessful appeal to the city, arguing that the financials value their building at $2 million less than its recent appraisal, that the city didn’t consider one of Legal Aid’s long-term contracts and that LAS can rent space in its building, all which provide a financial cushion.

Last year, LAS lost a $7 million county contract when the work was in-sourced to the Public Defender’s Office and the Office of the County Counsel. Estremera says that because they had to lay off 16 staff members, LAS used up its reserves paying accrued benefits. In January 2009, the county’s internal auditors issued a report saying the county overpaid LAS’s 2007–2008 program administrative expenses by $241,425. Estremera disagrees with this finding and has requested that LAS be excused from
reimbursement.

Sandra Murillo is the city’s CDBG program manager. She says the city has a fair process for assessing needs and rating applicants but there isn’t enough to go around this year. She says applicants had to meet a city funding priority, and perform HUD-eligible activities, to prove they’re helping the people they propose to help.

In addition, they were each required to demonstrate that at least 20 percent of their funding comes from other sources.
“There were several agencies who met all of the criteria, but the funding wasn’t enough to go down to them,” says Murillo. Speaking of LAS, she said, “Fortunately, there are others providing this service, and we were able to look at their capacity. So it’s not like we’re leaving these folks that would have been helped by LAS without any assistance.”

Janice Carolina Noble disagrees. She has worked as an LAS Fair Housing paralegal for the past 15 years. Noble says LAS’ housing counselors work evenings and weekends without pay to accommodate clients who can’t visit their offices during the work day. “No one else does what we do,” she says.

Many of Legal Aid’s housing counseling clients are apartment dwellers that landlords want to evict so they can rent to new higher-paying tenants. Other eviction victims are renters who didn’t know their homes were in foreclosure, didn’t understand or ignored the notices they received and were surprised by notices ordering them to move. They come to LAS to figure out what the notices mean and to get help asking for more time to find a new place to live. LAS counselors are also seeing home owners whose homes are in foreclosure.

“There’s Bay Area Legal, but because they receive federal funds their clients must be very low-income and they must be documented,” says Noble. “Project Sentinel doesn’t do unlawful detainers, they do mediations, fair housing and information and referrals.”

Noble adds, “I want the city to realize that 37 percent of their population is tenants and they should have a say in this decision. I want this city to meet with these people and give these people the right to speak for themselves. Everybody has a right to the justice system no matter how small they are and we give this right to them.”

The San Jose City Council will issue its final approval for FY 2009–2010 CDBG Funding Recommendations at its May 5 meeting at 1:30pm at City Hall.

16 Comments

  1. As Armando Gomez would say after eating his 12 donuts and washing it down with his glass of milk (extra butter fat for Armando), “the poor will always be with us.”

    What a nice group of people.  Armando shoves the poor out the door, and then goes back to his crossword puzzles.

  2. Nice to know that Chuck Reed not only resembles a seemy character out of a Dickens novel, but he also acts with as much disdain for the poor as a corrupt lawyer in any Dickens piece.

  3. The way the story is written, it sounds like Ms. Soledades was the victim of a wrongful eviction.  She certainly should have been entitled to more than one month’s rent.

    But that’s not the center of Ms. Soledades’ problem.  Her unchecked fecundity is the primary source of her plight.  Since there was no mention of a Senor Soledades, I must conclude that Senorita Soledades has five kids, the youngest being only 3 days old when this scenario began.  Since she speaks in Spanish and English, one may also presume that Senorita Soledades will never earn enough money to support six kids properly.

    Senorita Soledades needs to take advantage of other free-to-her, taxpayer-supported services—family planning services—before she catches up to OctoMom.

  4. Boy is this tear jerker story inaccurate! I think its time they are closed down. It has been poorly run for quite sometime now. Many of these agencies abandon their clients half way through the legal process, or make it very difficult to get any real help any way. Every agency listed in this article is a joke!

    I worked in Housing law as a volunteer for years, and referred thousands of renters to Legal Aid, only to have to assist hundreds of clients, who didn’t get help from Legal Aid, myself. The Legal Aid Society hasn’t been helping clients properly for many years now. Their Counselors rarely ever attend Housing Authority hearings, or court appearances with clients any more. Their follow through is terrible, and it takes an act of Congress to get them to return your call, or assist you in any way. If they do take your case, they can only “help” you ONCE a year, even if the case is the same case that still needs legal attention. Often times they make the client do the work, and leave them in the lurch at the most crucial time. 

    JMO is correct. This woman got ripped off royally. What kind of attorney did they send her to? She received an illegal Retaliatory Eviction Notice for exercising her rights, was Constructively Evicted because her landlord was in violation of Habitability Codes, and deserved far more than one month’s rent.

    The City needs to start kicking some of these slumlord’s butts, and holding these unprofessional supposed “helpful” non-profits liable for taking in money they DO NOT earn honestly. They need to properly staff Code Enforcement, and get their own Housing Department better funded and staffed so THEY can help renters.

  5. Please stop attacking John.  He is right when he makes assumptions about all these people, who should get as Chuck Reed once said, breeder documents.

    John is simply fighting for the rights of all supremacists and he is welcome in our part of Idaho anytime, as he believes in working for the supremacists view at all times.

  6. I agree with JMOC (and racism has nothing to do with it). Many of these programs we set up actually encourage people to make stupid choices in their lives thus making them dependent on taxpayers for everything.

    I also appreciate Kathleen’s knowledgeable perspective on this situation. (Although I’m sure we would disagree on the overall topic of “affordable housing”) I’ve been concerned that, in general, government-funded non-profits are mor about easy, six-figure salaries for their officers than about providing valuable service to the community. The Legal Aid Society might be a case in point and my hunch is that it’s just the tip of the non-profit iceberg.

  7. #7-John,
    If you get the chance, go to the City’s website and look at the Council Meeting that has a discussion on helping people in foreclosure. (It was recently, in the past couple of Council Meetings.) Martin Eichner, who heads Project Sentinel, openly admits to the Mayor and Council that even though the City is paying them to work with folks in foreclosure distress, (I don’t know how much money the City is paying them, but I’m sure its a lot!) they are really not trained, or staffed to help these terrified people in the way they need to be assisted. He also openly admits NOT helping them! YIKES!!!!
    WHAT? I want someone to explain this to me! Does the City ever really LISTEN to these comments, or hire people, or agencies they oversee, or are qualified to do the job they’re being highly paid for? This is just too much for me. If I contracted with businesses to make repairs, or to educate me for a career, etc. the way the City contracts or funds supposed “experts,” I’d be screwed!

  8. #9; Senorita Alva said, in Spanish, that she has lived in one particular for 13 years.  Thirteen years in SJ and she still can’t speak English?  How does she expect to succeed?  No-one expects her to be as erudite as William F. Buckley; but to live in the USA for at least thirteen years and not be able to communicate in English dooms her, and shows her disrespect for the country that has probably provided her the only job(s) she has ever had.

  9. Raj,
    I’m a bit upset with you for posting this video because you helping an organization that I know first hand is NOT helping people the way the are supposed to, nor are they or have they used the funding they’ve been getting to assist poor people. Do you know anything about how Legal Aide operates? Do you realize that for some 4-5 years they have been receiving City funding and NOT helping very many people?
    I’d like to see you ask them to give you the actual stats on how many clients call/come for help, how many they turn a way, and how many they actually give service to. If they are honest with you, you’ll see why they should NOT receive any further funding.

  10. Hi Kathleen,
    I’ll ask about the numbers. My knowledge of Legal Aid’s (Housing Advocacy division) comes from several De-Bug people that went there for help when they needed some answers around their housing rights. The most recent was around six months ago. The staff, the ones in the video, helped them.

  11. #12- Raj,
    This topic is something that is near and dear to my heart because I worked in this field for 12 years. I know first hand about every one of these agencies because I had to fight with them to serve clients I referred to them. Legal Aide does have a walk in, and phone Counselor, between certain hours to answer your questions regarding your rights as a tenant. Renters can purchase an inexpensive book that will tell them the same thing, or they can look it up on the Internet, or in the library. What I’m talking about is actual services Legal Aide was PAID to provide and didn’t/doesn’t. Even Bay Area Legal Aide, and SALA don’t provide services for the elderly, disabled, or poor in the manner in which, or in the quantity the grants they get require them to. They leave terrified low-income renters to face JUDGES, Hearing Officers, Landlords, and Housing Authority workers ALONE. It is heartbreaking and sickening the way these idiots treat these people.

    I really don’t think you get how many Section 8, Voucher Program, low income disabled, blind, or poor citizens are being neglected by these non profits who have gotten MILLIONS of dollars from the City, and other grants. If you knew you’d be outraged. I used to spend 60 plus VOLUNTEER hours a week, helping these folks because these supposed helpful idiots did not do their dam job.

    Legal Aide, and other agencies like them that are misusing funds should be ashamed of themselves for the way they abandon these terrified renters, and low-income people on SSI/SSA. And the City and organizations that provide funding, and grants they don’t oversee should be slapped silly.

  12. I was thoroughly disgusted and appalled at the conduct of the San Jose City council at the May 5, 2009 meeting.  The Director of Housing Leslie Krutko presented the recommendations for CDBG funds for the next fiscal year.  All of the agencies recommended for funding met the cities strict financial and program performance guidelines.  The careful of consideration of the Director of housing, was thrown out the window when Legal Aid Society supporters lobbied the council with falsehoods.  Even though Legal Aid Society did not pass the financial standards necessary for funding, City Councilwoman Nora Campos put forth a motion to defund the agencies that actually qualified for funding, so that Legal Aid Society, which has been plagued with financial mismanagement, and still owes the County of Santa Clara upwards of $200,000 for misspent monies, could be funded.  I find it unconscionable that a city would fund an agency that last year lost a $7million dollar contract with the county because they could not pass a financial audit, and attempt fund them this year even though they couldn’t meet the city or federal financial standards.  I hope to see the council members take account of the truth and choose to do the right thing. 

    Additionally the legal aid supports stated several falsehoods at this meeting. 
    1.  No other agencies serve undocumented immigrants. 
    Fair Housing Law Project, Project Sentinel and Asian Law Alliance all have and continue to provide this service in the City of San Jose

    2.  No else does fair housing in the city of San Jose. 
    Project Sentinel, Fair Housing Law Project, Asian Law Alliance all have and continue to provide this service in the City of San Jose

    3.  No one else serves all zip codes in San Jose. 
    Senior Adult Legal Assistance, Council on Aging, Project Sentinel, Fair Housing Law Project, Asian Law Alliance. all have and continue to provide this service in the City of San Jose

    4.  No one else provide eviction defense. 
    Senior Adult Legal Assistance, Fair Housing Law Project, Asian Law Alliance all have and continue to provide this service in the City of San Jose

    5.  No other agencies provide assistance with 3 day notices. 
    Bay Area Legal Aid, Project Sentinel, Fair Housing Law Project, Asian Law Alliance all have and continue to provide this service in the City of San Jose.

  13. #14-Adriana,
    Well said. Unfortunately, the Council doesn’t know first hand what goes on at this agency, and how many people are left without help. Don’t be too hard on Nora. Nora, and the rest of the Council are just trying to get assistance for low-income people. Legal Aid used to be very good about a decade ago, but not any more. It is sad that some of the hard working Councilors at Legal Aid are stuck working for an agency like this, and that folks like the ones who showed up at the Council Meeting stick up for an agency they know very little about.

    I saw the Council Meeting and Leslie tried to continually warn the Council about the audit results, the guidelines they are required to follow, and the lack of funds. Unfortunately, she has to take her direction from the Council. It is not up to her to decide. I doubt Legal Aid will be able to clear up the auditing issue, and be able to pass the strict requirements, so it may be a moot point, but if they do get funding to float them while this issue is being investigated, then that is just plain wrong of the City.

    The sad part of all of this is that the City, and other grantors do NOT oversee these agencies properly. They lack serious accountability. Good agencies that work hard and serve the community the way grants require them to, lose out to agencies like this who have a powerful spokes person like Tony Estremera, former candidate for City Council. He only comes out of the woodwork when finances become an issue. I was absolutely shocked to hear him say that even though Legal Aid scored “low” other agencies that scored lower got funding. I honestly think giving money to agencies that aren’t meeting requirements is theft of taxpayer’s money, and is a real serious issue that needs to be addressed like yesterday!

    One very important point here is that grants are set up to make agencies fail. Many agencies and Cities “move grant money around” from a specific grant to one that does NOT qualify to cover a much more needed service. No one is overseeing that. Secondly, you will notice that when agencies get funding for say, housing discrimination, they find a way to turn a case into discrimination even when none exists.  It is a very sad thing to watch because so many people need help, who don’t get it, and some very kind, and loving workers who really care about their clients are worked to death for very little financial compensation.

  14. Unfortunately this is how most businesses and agencies are run in California and hence the trouble with california and the budget problems.  I have never seen such incompetence and waste of tax dollars.  Thank you for your posts Kathleen and others who are able to see the problems here.  This city is is dire need of aggressive advocates.