My name is Andrea Rice and I have been a Homelessness Prevention AmeriCorps VISTA since October. I am pleased to be part of OneJustice’s Homelessness Prevention Team working to strengthen the capacity of the legal sector’s efforts to alleviate poverty and prevent homelessness.
In 2020, families scrambled to pay their rent and avoid eviction. Single mothers had to balance caring for their children while maintaining a stable income, and tenants were at risk with limited legal resources and information about their rights. As we enter 2022, Californians continue to face an unprecedented housing crisis and are prone to lawsuits for rent owed during the pandemic. I want to make a difference by helping vulnerable populations, and OneJustice is giving me the opportunity to respond comprehensively in alleviating homelessness.
Our Court Watch Project is one strategy for assisting legal services organizations (LSOs) with addressing the challenges faced by low-income tenants defending small claims actions. The Court Watch Project’s goal is to observe small claims back rent hearings and gather data that will inform LSOs. Recent laws enacted in response to the pandemic, and in recognition of the income lost by working Californians, are complex and force tenants facing back rent claims to defend themselves in small claims courts without legal representation. As part of our first phase of Court Watch, our team has observed several hearings. Our observations will be compiled and shared with LSOs to inform and prepare their small claims legal clinics and know your rights materials.
I had the opportunity to visit small claims hearings and saw the challenges facing tenants. In the hearings, it was typical to see defendants show up without any guidance or necessary evidence to represent themselves. It was rare to see translated know your rights materials or interpreter services. It was common for plaintiffs and defendants to misunderstand their service notice or the roll call process, and as result of their confusion, have their cases dismissed and rescheduled. These are only a few scenarios that reveal the challenges the legal aid community needs to be aware of so that they can best deploy their resources accordingly.
The existing hardships from the pandemic are glaring, and low-income communities are at a further disadvantage with limited financial and legal resources. As a response to these challenges and to support the legal aid sector, one of the projects I worked on was developing the Tenant’s Next Steps Form, which provides a list of specific evidence a tenant can provide in their hearing and is available in 12 different languages. The form was added to our Small Claims Back Rent Toolkit, which was created to assist LSOs in preparing tenants for their small claims court hearings. This is one of several tools we developed that will enhance the work of LSOs and empower tenants to defend themselves
Though the effects of the pandemic are placing hardships on low-income tenants, we are optimistic the Court Watch Project alongside the Small Claims Back Rent Toolkit will provide LSOs with resources to deploy and use to prepare tenants for their day in court, ultimately preventing homelessness and mitigating the risk of financial ruin. We look forward to collaborating with volunteers and the legal aid community to bridge the gap and lessen the hardships facing low-income tenants. If you would like to know more about our Court Watch Project you may reach Bruno Huizar, Program Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org. For inquiries regarding the Toolkit you may contact Miguel Martinez, Program Manager, at email@example.com.
Homelessness Prevention Americorp VISTA