In the midst of the immense pain caused by the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Californians are now at an increased risk of homelessness and/or financial ruin. Six of the ten cities in the country with the highest unhoused population are located in California, with 740,000 renters owing their landlords approximately $3.5 billion in back rent as of February 2022. Low-income tenants across the state who live paycheck to paycheck are at significant risk of losing their housing and many face potentially crippling debt from unpaid rental payments.
For the countless families facing back rent claims, their primary defense lies in their ability to represent themselves in court. Without attorneys present or adequate legal assistance, this challenge may seem insurmountable for many, particularly given that a potential judgment against them could result in debt that could harm their financial security and future housing. New laws allowed landlords to sue in Small Claims Court for amounts far greater than $10,000–amounts that could destroy a family’s financial future and opportunity to be housed. OneJustice’s Homelessness Prevention Project team focused on those tenants struggling to pay rent during COVID and who would be susceptible to Small Claims lawsuits.
OneJustice’s Small Claims/Back Rent Project equips Legal Services Organizations (LSOs) with the tools and resources to aid our community members in building the best possible defense to remain financially stable. The toolkit was downloaded 139 times by legal aid organizations, Small Claims Bench Officers, Self Help Centers, law schools, and community-based organizations, and was downloaded from 53 different cities across California. OneJustice expanded its work in this area to include a Court Watch program.
“Our newly launched Court Watch project trains volunteers to observe hearings in Small Claims Court and gather data on how local courts are administering new procedures and applying the law in Small Claims Court. Court Watch aims to increase our understanding of critical issues, including judicial behavior, the implementation of new civil procedures in court proceedings, and the divide between cases on record and laws in action”, said Andrea Rice, Homelessness Prevention AmeriCorps VISTA, OneJustice.
OneJustice plans to identify patterns in court hearings and share the results with LSOs in order for the LSOs to best prepare their clients for the new challenges they face in their Small Claims hearings. Starting this summer, the Court Watch team will work with pro bono volunteers and law school students to collect their observations from courthouses throughout the state and share their information. Additionally, this pro bono project will compile critical data for OneJustice to create necessary materials for LSOs based on the needs identified.
Legal aid programs and other community-based organizations serve as first responders to many low-income tenants who are at risk of homelessness as well as clients who already had to leave their homes. OneJustice’s toolkit and Court Watch program is allowing legal aid programs and other organizations to better serve their clients who are facing these issues.