All over the state, legal aid offices are continuing the work of keeping people in safe housing. They also present information to lawyers, community advocates, city councils, landlords, real estate agents, and homebuilders about how laws affect renters and homeowners and what changes in the law mean. We would like to spotlight a new housing advocate in Lane County, Laurie Hauber, who has hit the ground running alongside housing expert John VanLandingham. Together, they are looking at a broad range of Lane County housing issues to address the affordable housing crisis. These include working on a proposed construction excise tax to support affordable housing, addressing tenant protections, exploring issues faced by homeless community members and manufactured home park residents, and examining other affordable housing issues at the city and county level. They will share information with other legal aid advocates working on similar affordable housing issues in other parts of the state.
Laurie brings strong skills from her previous work at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and as a clinical law professor at Vanderbilt University Law School. She is a graduate of Boston College Law School and Harvard University. Her position is made possible by a generous grant from the Oregon Law Foundation.
So, what does the work Laurie and John are doing include? Here’s a snapshot of recent efforts in their office:
•Speaking on landlord/tenant law and how it might affect their clients at the annual Juvenile Law Training Academy in Eugene on October 16, 2017. The training was attended by about 200 lawyers and agency staff who work in the juvenile court community.
•Working to develop a proposal for the Eugene City Council regarding a possible construction excise tax for affordable housing development, as authorized by the 2016 legislature. Setting up briefings with leaders of the local homebuilders, real estate agents, landlords, and the Chamber of Commerce.
•Advising Portland advocates and officials regarding possible tenant protection measures regarding security deposits, resident purchase of apartment buildings, and zoning protection for manufactured dwelling parks to mitigate or reduce the risk of closure and redevelopment.
•Working with manufactured dwelling park landlords and tenants to explore the possibility of having a state agency enforce laws relating to mobile home park tenancies; beginning discussions with one state agency.
•Working with housing authorities, landlords, and the Housing & Community Services Department to implement HB 2639 (2014) and HB 2944 (2017) regarding prohibiting discrimination by landlords against applicants with a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher.
•Working with a leader of the “tiny homes” for homeless people movement to explore how landlord/tenant law applies to these homes, especially regarding habitability requirements.
We would also like to share the work of two new housing advocates in Multnomah County, Maria Elena Santaella and Garrett Wright of the Portland Regional Office of Legal Aid Services of Oregon.
The City of Portland provided a one-year grant, with the possibility of renewal, to the Portland Regional Office to support a paralegal and attorney team to focus on housing outreach and protection. The Portland City Council also recently renewed its declared Housing Emergency to give the city more time and tools to help generate awareness about how the statewide housing crisis is affecting the Portland area.
Garrett and Maria Elena have jumped into things quickly, working with tenants in urgent housing matters. Because some of the measures from the city are new or uncertain, they have been answering questions and providing general education for landlords, tenants, and other agencies and organizations. The fundamental concept behind this grant is for legal aid staff to be on the ground actively serving clients who need legal assistance with housing issues. This is legal aid's approach for all areas of law, and it is exciting to have their core value of community outreach lawyering explicitly spelled out in the grant.
An additional feature of this grant is that it helps both legal aid and the City of Portland prioritize anti-displacement work. Displacement is when one group of people moves into a space that was previously occupied by another group. When the displacement is caused by people with higher incomes, it is called gentrification. The group that is displaced is usually vulnerable in some way so that they are unable to remain in a neighborhood, even if they want to do so. Studies have shown that uprooting these residents can affect their stability, particularly kids who are attending school and adults who live in a particular place to be close to work. This loss of stability affects their health, stress levels, and grades in school. Stable communities are stronger communities, so whenever possible, keeping a family in a safe home in a neighborhood that they love provides benefits for everyone. This is especially true for communities of color and others who are most affected by the affordable housing crisis.
Maria Elena said that she has been busy strengthening relationships with other nonprofit groups who work with people in danger of losing their homes. These connections allow legal aid to hold intake meetings where potential clients are most comfortable, to offer clinics, and to present educational programs in varied places all over the city. This approach means that legal aid can be in the right place to address the legal problems that come up when renters go to other volunteer or advocacy groups with their biggest fears about losing their homes. She and Garrett are also making sure that agencies and other organizations know how to make referrals when legal aid is not onsite. Talking through the process of eviction with a lawyer, or having a lawyer help draft a letter regarding an eviction, can make a big difference in the outcome. This is true for individual clients as well as for entire apartment complexes that receive notices of rent increases or mass evictions as a group.
Garrett and Maria Elena also say that when they work one on one with tenants who are subject to losing their housing, assessing each client’s need when viewed alongside the others can inform legal aid about a "bigger picture" issue. Sometimes the experiences form a pattern, and that pattern points to a systemic problem that legal aid can approach in different ways. Systemic advocacy is one way that legal aid can help alleviate housing problems that may impact a large number of people.
Safe housing is key to stability, health, education, and preventing a slide into deeper poverty. Knowing what to do when your housing is at risk can lower anxiety and empower people to be sure that their rights are being respected. We welcome Garrett and Maria Elena to the Portland Office, and we’re grateful to know they are out there doing this important work!
Times are tough for low-income communities. Multiple indicators make apparent that low-income communities in Multnomah County (and Oregon) are in crisis. In the last 5 years, the poverty population has increased by more than 30,000 people. According to the most recent American Community Survey 5 year estimate, 136,346 people now live in poverty in Multnomah County.
Notably, deep disparities exist between communities of color and white communities across the board such as income, rates of home ownership and neighborhood choice.
Communities of color are overrepresented in the poverty population. For instance, 41% of Latinos, 46.8% of African Americans, 43.5% of Native Americans and 32.6% of immigrants and refugees live at or below 125% of the poverty level as compared to 19.6% for those who identify as white. Overall, almost one in four children in Multnomah County are living in poverty.
Other factors are at play. Portland’s housing crisis has had a devastating impact on low-income families and communities. As rents have skyrocketed, the poor continue to be uprooted from their homes. Many have been forced outside the central city to East Multnomah County. Others are homeless. Those forced to move must enroll their children in new schools and find themselves in neighborhoods of fewer opportunities, further from jobs, health care, day care, and grocery stores. Loss of housing can lead to a cascade of other problems such as missed school for children, loss of employment and general instability.
The highest poverty rates in the county are concentrated in East Portland. One indicator is the number of students who qualify for free or reduced hot lunch in school districts. For example, in the Portland school district, 38% of students qualify for free or reduced hot lunch; at David Douglas and Reynolds Districts, both in East County, that number jumps to 76%. The neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates are also areas that have high percentages of people of color including immigrant and refugee communities.
The crisis is marked by an overwhelming need for affordable housing. When the Section 8 voucher application process last opened for 5 days last fall, 16,000 households applied. Only about 2000 made it onto the waitlist. After only a few hundred names had been pulled (by lottery) in March of this year, Home Forward, Portland’s housing authority, froze the list due to decreases and fear of decreases in federal funding. Limited availability of housing puts our clients into positions where they may be forced to tolerate discrimination, unsafe or uninhabitable living conditions for fear of losing their housing altogether.
The housing crisis hits low-income households the hardest and disproportionately affects communities of color. According to the Portland Housing Bureau’s State of Housing in Portland report released at the end of 2016, for the average Latino, Black, Native American, and single-mother household, there are no neighborhoods in the city where they can afford to rent. Communities of color also experience disproportionately low homeownership rates compared to white households.
The homeless population has jumped 10% in the last two years despite serious public investment by the city and the county. Half of women experiencing homelessness have been in domestic violence situations and people of color make up more than 40% of the homeless population.
Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO) represents individuals who are generally at or below 125% of the federal poverty level. That means that an individual must earn less than $1256 a month to qualify for legal aid’s help. The number of people eligible for legal aid help in Multnomah County is approximately 172,500. The Portland Regional Office of LASO also serves Clackamas, Sherman, Hood River and Wasco counties. The total number of eligible clients in the five county region is approximately 236,000. Legal aid resources have not increased proportionally to the growing poverty population. Statewide, legal aid programs meet less than 15% of the legal needs of low-income Oregonians. Put another way, based on legal aid’s staffing statewide, there is 1 attorney for every 8500 who are eligible for legal aid help.
LASO strives to respond to the changing needs of our client communities. We listen to our client communities, the bench and bar and organizations who work closely with our clients in order to best prioritize legal issues. Not surprisingly, the following were ranked highest by almost everyone surveyed: access to safe and affordable housing, safety from violence and employment problems. When clients were recently asked what kept them up at night, a few common themes emerged: keeping their children safe and fears related to abuse by an intimate partner, threats of violence, eviction, inability to afford rent and having to move again.
Helping families maintain safe, stable housing has long been one of legal aid’s highest priorities. Approximately 31% of legal aid’s work involves housing issues, and the volume of calls for this type of assistance has increased dramatically. Last year legal aid in Portland helped about 900 clients in housing matters. Lawyers provide legal representation that addresses housing discrimination, anti-displacement, the preservation of multi-unit affordable housing complexes and mobile home parks and habitability cases that involve disparate health effects. In addition, legal aid provides eviction defense and foreclosure prevention work.continued in next column
How does a person get help when their partner becomes violent? Co-located services -- a "one-stop shop" model, where many groups who help survivors join together in one space -- is a great way to offer comprehensive, fast assistance. Centers using this kind of model are already operating in Portland and Oregon City, and the Family Justice Center in Washington County is just a few months away from leaving the planning stages and opening its doors.
The Family Justice Center's goal is to be a helpful place where a person who has experienced domestic violence can come to get some, if not all, of the services they need, including learning about their rights from a legal aid lawyer. They can speak with agencies that provide emergency housing, food, and child care. There’s even a volunteer to watch their children so parents don’t have to speak about sensitive issues or legal problems in front of young ears. Legal aid will be on site several days a week. They will meet with clients and will provide training to onsite partners on how to screen for legal issues relating to domestic violence.
As it is now, a domestic violence survivor in Washington County might have to travel to four or five different places to get the various services they need to be safe. The time and money involved in getting help can potentially discourage a person from seeking help at all, or they might have trouble even discovering what resources are available to help them make a plan to find safety during a dangerous situation. With this new Family Justice Center, they will be able to access various resources with one trip.
The site for the Family Justice Center has been located, and the construction to get it ready to go is still underway. Even without the space, the planning and training continues. Each service provider operates a little differently, so coordination is key to successful co-location. But the idea behind each one these collaborations is that each group wants to make it easier for a person experiencing domestic violence to get help and to access resources as quickly and easily as possible. Leslea Smith, Regional Director for the Hillsboro Regional Office of the Oregon Law Center, says, "I'm pleased that more than three years of efforts are about to come to fruition. Soon we will have the Family Justice Center and domestic violence services in our county will be greatly improved."
In response to the housing crisis, the City of Portland has also funded two positions for the next year to focus on anti-displacement work with an emphasis on insuring that communities of color and those most affected by the housing crisis remain in stable housing. In addition, LASO continues to work on a range of high priority issues such as domestic and sexual violence, employment discrimination, health care access, consumer issues. The growth of the poverty population and notably the issues that disproportionately affect communities of color, immigrant and refugee populations and other vulnerable groups highlight the importance of pursuing strategic advocacy and litigation to effectuate broad changes in the systems that affect low-income communities. Legal aid balances this work with representation of individual clients on high priority legal issues that ensure their day-to-day safety and welfare.
The ever-increasing size of Multnomah County’s poverty population as well as the complexity of its legal needs require, now more than ever, the assistance of volunteer lawyers. For decades, LASO has stretched its limited resources through our vital partnership with the MBA. Our pro bono programs are a crucial component of our long-standing model of meeting the legal needs of our low-income clients by increasing access to justice. Clients literally depend on Multnomah County lawyers.
The true strength of the program lies in the dedication of its volunteers. In Multnomah County, legal aid is extremely fortunate to have a deep pool of attorneys, currently 560 strong, who volunteer for one of our many clinics or who pick up cases through our pro bono listserv. Multnomah County Lawyers consistently take time away from their busy jobs to provide high-quality representation to clients with critical and ever-changing legal issues. Last year, volunteer lawyers handled 270 cases ranging from representation in restraining order hearings, bankruptcy, expungement, housing, consumer, wills, tax and foreclosure defense to assisting clients prepare to file their own divorce.
LASO tremendously values its partnership with the Multnomah County bar. As our pro bono programs evolve to meet the shifting legal needs of our clients, the ongoing involvement and commitment of volunteer lawyers is critical. Lawyers providing representation are often the last hope for many clients seeking critically needed legal assistance. Now more than ever, our clients need your help. Volunteering can provide concrete, meaningful impact on the day-to-day problems faced by low-income communities.