Legal Aid Foundation: The Most Important Resource You Hope You’ll Never Need
A Conversation with Executive Director Jennifer Smith
For a college student being evicted or an elderly woman faced with losing her apartment, the Legal Aid Foundation is Santa Barbara County’s safety net for anyone who can’t afford a lawyer. The nonprofit’s work was thrown into high profile upon the eviction of hundreds of tenants from among the 254 apartments at Isla Vista’s CBC & The Sweeps, with reports that they fielded dozens more calls at their Help Desk than usual after the quit notices were served on residents.
A moratorium on evictions in California was put in place during the pandemic, so that people affected by the anticipated economic slowdown would not be summarily displaced. Instead, rental assistance became available from the state.
When the moratorium ended in March 2022, the anticipated tsunami of evictions did not occur, said Superior Court administrator Darrel Parker. Instead, unlawful detainers — the court phase of evictions — stayed relatively flat across the courts in Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Santa Maria: 905 in 2019 and 865 in 2022.
The prospect of unlawful detainers at The Sweeps could send 2023’s statistics into an unwelcome incline upward, however. In light of the new tenant protection laws put in place locally, we asked Executive Director Jennifer Smith at Legal Aid about the state of evictions today:
Jennifer Smith: What we have seen at Legal Aid on a countywide basis are ongoing bad faith attempts by landlords to skirt the Tenant Protection Act (also referred to as Assembly Bill 1482). What this means is that a landlord may issue a notice stating a reason or “just cause” for eviction, but later it turns out that the stated reason simply is not true. And on top of everything, over the last 10 years since the mortgage crisis, the rental market has been increasingly tight and rents have skyrocketed.
If you are a longtime homeowner and have not looked for a place recently, you would be shocked to see what rents are these days. It impacts all of us. It makes it difficult for employers to recruit employees. It leads to long commutes that pollute our air. It leads to overcrowding and segregation.
If you are accused of a crime, you have a right to legal representation, but if you are facing an unjust eviction, no right to counsel exists. Nationwide, most tenants who are facing eviction are unrepresented. The State Bar of California conducted a justice gap study that was released in 2019. It found that legal aid organizations statewide fully resolve only 30 percent of the problems presented to them. The State Bar conservatively estimated that to fully address the unmet need of low-income Californians, the state would need another 9,000 full-time legal aid lawyers.
Is the new county renoviction ordinance all it could be? According to advocates at ACCE Institute and AC Legal, in looking at other jurisdictions that have passed ordinances regarding “substantial renovation,” additional protections could include: setting a higher threshold for allowing eviction due to substantial renovation (a minimum cost, a minimum scope of work, or a government order requiring abatement); a right of the tenant to return to their unit (either at the same rent or with an increase allowed under state law); a right to be placed in another unit if the owner has one available; a landlord responsibility to place a tenant in comparable housing during a renovation; and other requirements.
Local lawmakers also have a variety of policy options to address to prevent housing instability and homelessness. Some of these policies include requiring relocation benefits for tenants facing “no cause” evictions, mandatory lease offer rules (which City of S.B. adopted), mediation or reconciliation requirements, additional just cause and rent increase protections that are more protective than state law, and more.
Is there a typical eviction client? Every eviction is unique, but one thing people may not be aware of is that many people facing eviction are seniors. We’ve seen seniors as old as 99 years old facing eviction. As the population continues to age and more people rely on Social Security as their only source of income, this problem will grow. Evictions also involve hard-working families where disruption during the school year causes real havoc for kids.
Does Legal Aid practice law beyond housing? In addition to housing, our current program areas include the prevention of homelessness and family violence. We have a consumer protection and a disability advocacy program, and we work with clients in Housing and Probate through the Shriver Civil Counsel Program in North County. We also staff the court self-help centers, known as the Legal Resource Centers.
Our mission is to provide high-quality civil legal services to low-income and other vulnerable residents in order to ensure equal access to justice. Our focus and priority are the indigent, the most vulnerable tenants in our community, including people with disabilities, seniors, and those with the lowest incomes. My team of experienced housing attorneys defend unlawful evictions every day and will zealously advocate for their clients.
As the only civil legal aid organization in South County and Lompoc, we change lives through direct representation, legal advice and information, and community education. And as a nonprofit organization, we absolutely rely on the generosity of the local community to support our work. We cannot provide these services without community support.