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Holiday Fund: Getting justice and a safe home

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto protects tenants from landlord abuses

Jose Cabrera cranked up the heater to full blast in his duplex unit to keep his wife and three children warm. It wasn't the coldest day of the year, nor was the winter excessively frigid. But he was willing to face an enormous utility bill as the only way to fight the streaming, chilly air seeping through the cracked glass and wide gaps in the windows, which flapped in the wind.

Cabrera tried to tape the gaps shut to keep the wind out, but it didn't help much. The only reason the glass stayed in place was because of the bars he had added to the door and windows after a break-in the first week the family moved in, he said. One day, when workmen hammered on the gutters one of the windows fell out onto the floor.

Leaks in the bathroom; an old rug that irritated his daughter's eczema; a malfunctioning heater -- after 17 years living in the same residence, often silent about the deteriorating conditions, Cabrera finally asked the landlord for repairs. But each time the landlord said the rent would go up: $100, then $200 and more a month. And still, the conditions were not fixed, he said.

At festivals and public events, Cabrera kept hearing other long-suffering East Palo Alto residents talk about a group that had helped them out of housing and immigration jams. He didn't believe at first that anyone would offer free and effective legal help. But after two years of haggling with the landlord and getting nowhere, he went to Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. The longtime nonprofit organization of volunteer attorneys provides legal services to some of the Bay Area's most needy residents.

A $7,500 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund last year helped fund legal clinics. Low-income residents receive free consultations about housing problems and learn about their rights. Many work with an attorney who helps guide them and will write letters and offer other support to help the client negotiate a better living situation or avoid an eviction. The grant also helped support a program with San Mateo County Superior Court to help residents without a lawyer negotiate resolutions with their landlords when they faced displacement.

“East Palo Alto residents are facing a crisis,” Keith Ogden, senior attorney for housing and economic advancement, said. "As rents skyrocket in the Bay Area, some landlords aggressively try to evict tenants, particularly those who have had long tenancies in rent-controlled units. Landlords try other tactics to force tenants out, letting units ... deteriorate to the degree that tenants will flee for their health and safety," he said.

Potentially thousands of working-class families face being forced out of the city and out of Silicon Valley by such tactics. Since last November, Community Legal Services has assisted more than 85 families with emergency rental funds, he said.

But many cases such as Cabrera's can be resolved, keeping families in stable homes, Ogden said.

Cabrera said he came to Community Legal Services in February 2016. After two months his landlord began to make some of the repairs. Through Community Legal Services, he learned he could withhold his rent until the landlord made the necessary repairs and rug replacement.

By July, with many of the issues still unresolved, the landlord faced a hearing before the Rent Stabilization Board. He fixed the bathroom, replaced the rug and got the heater to work again. The landlord has reimbursed the family for excess rent increases.

"I recommend Community Legal Services to anybody. They have beautiful people working here and they help a lot," Cabrera said.

For more information about the Holiday Fund, including how to donate and the agencies it supported this year, go to paloaltoonline.com/holidayfund.

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