On a recent Tuesday, Erin Katayama, Supervising Attorney at the Justice & Diversity Center’s (JDC) Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) received an urgent call for help. A colleague at the Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC) told her about a tenant in dire need of an attorney, as she was facing a Mandatory Settlement Conference the very next day.
The EDC attorney explained that the tenant, Joan*, was 74 years old, with mental and physical disabilities. Joan had lived in this private housing apartment for ten years and paid $650 in rent each month. However, without sufficient income—Joan had a small amount of Social Security, but had recently lost her job—Joan had fallen behind and now owed several months of back rent. The situation looked dire and was complicated by the fact that Joan had a problem with cluttering and unsanitary apartment conditions.
Erin agreed to represent Joan. The settlement conference day didn’t start well. At first, things looked hopeless and opposing counsel insisted on a move-out. After an afternoon of fighting, Erin was able to buy some time and got everyone to agree to a conditional move-out: Joan would move out in three months—unless Joan was able to secure sufficient income, pay rent, clean the apartment and pass inspection. If those conditions were met in three months, everyone agreed, Joan could stay.
At the settlement conference, Erin also introduced Joan to Robin, HAP’s MSW social work intern. Robin and Joan met and quickly built trust. They made an appointment to return to HAP to figure out if Joan could get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and help cleaning the apartment.
Back at HAP, Joan worked with Robin and a team of HAP staff on SSI paperwork and to get Adult Protective Services (APS) referrals for a deep clean and apartment inspections. Robin got her first glimpse of Joan’s living conditions during that first inspection: Not only was Joan living in cluttered and unsanitary conditions, but she did not have a bed and slept on the ground. It also became clear that many of the conditions were the fault of the building not properly attending to the unit, such as mold, a rusty sink, broken windows, broken lights, and more.
Robin took pictures and, after discussing the situation with Erin, made a complaint to the Department of Building Inspection. Erin, at the same time, drafted a demand letter to the opposing counsel about fixing these issues. Meanwhile, the property manager continued to tell Joan that she had “to leave” and that “he wasn’t fixing anything”. Erin sent about three demand letters to the attorney.
While Robin was dealing with Joan’s living conditions, Paulina, a HAP Social Services Advocate and Margaret, a HAP Supervising SSI Advocate, looked into Joan’s eligibility for SSI and other services. It turned out that Joan was eligible to receive income, but not until after the “due date” under the settlement. Paulina then contacted the Q Foundation, which agreed to not only pay Joan’s back rent but also to subsidize her rent until she begins receiving SSI.
After that, Robin continued to visit Joan to check up on the deep cleaning she had arranged through APS. Robin also gave Joan a fold-out chair to use as a bed temporarily, until she got a real one. Also, thanks to Robin’s persistence and Erin’s demand letters, the landlord finally agreed to fix the issues in Joan’s apartment.
Now that Joan’s apartment has been cleaned, painted, and fixed, it is like brand new. And yet, this is not the end of the story. Robin continued to go the extra mile. She and her husband bought new furniture, including a bed and mattress for Joan and delivered them to the apartment. Joan helped put the furniture together and was quite teary-eyed because she hadn’t slept in a real bed for years.
Joan made it past the settlement agreement date to comply and will now be able to keep living in her newly clean and furnished home. Thanks to the help of a team of dedicated legal and social service staff at HAP, Joan’s life has turned around since that Tuesday, when Erin received the call from EDC.
To learn more about HAP, visit www.sfbar.org/hap.
*Not their real name. Client name has been changed to protect their privacy and confidentiality.