Smith v. City of Oakland

Oakland renters who need to live in accessible units are either shut out of the City’s rent control protections entirely, or forced to live in inaccessible units. Please contact DRA if you are in either situation, we want to hear from you! Contact DRA at 510-665-8644 or

On August 28, 2019 – Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) and PILP filed a class action lawsuit alleging that people with disabilities are discriminatorily excluded from Oakland’s rent stabilization program (also known as rent control). Oakland’s rent control program covers approximately 60% of the City’s rental properties, providing meaningful protection from rapidly rising rents, for those who reside in these protected properties. However, people with mobility disabilities are uniquely barred from this protection; Oakland’s program exempts every building constructed after January 1, 1983, from its coverage—yet laws establishing accessibility standards about essential features like stair-free entryways and grab bars went into effect years after that date. As a result, nearly every accessible rental unit in Oakland is excluded from the City’s rent control program.

“I used to live in a more accessible apartment, but I had to leave when the rent started to go up faster than I could afford. I was fortunate to find an inaccessible rent-stabilized unit that I could work with—more or less—but it’s not always easy, and I worry that I’m only one injury away from not being able to do it at all.”
– Plaintiff Mitch Jeserich

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Oakland must modify its rent stabilization program so that people who need accessible housing can access the same benefits that the city affords to its nondisabled renters, on the same terms. Because the requirements of the federal ADA supersede state law, Oakland must modify its program even if California’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which imposes limitations on local rent control policies, would not otherwise allow it.

“Renters with disabilities across Oakland are harmed by the lack of accessible units covered by the city’s rent stabilization program. I worry that many have already been forced out of the City because they need to live in accessible units and, as a result, have no opportunity to access rent stabilization.”
– Sean Betouliere, Staff Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates

This lawsuit comes at a dire time for Oakland renters. Average market-rate rents in Oakland have almost doubled over the past decade; in the past year alone, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment has increased by nearly 13 percent. Because they are denied the protections of Oakland’s rent stabilization program, people with disabilities who need accessible housing are especially susceptible to these skyrocketing rents.

“For many tenants, rent stabilization is the difference between having or not having a place to live in Oakland and in other communities with rent control. The blanket exclusion from Oakland’s rent stabilization program of all units built less than 36 years ago effectively denies a person needing to live in an accessible unit from protections of the program. We hope that this litigation will make Oakland’s rent control program more accessible to tenants with disabilities.”
– Michael Rawson, Director of the Public Interest Law Project

Read More Here.

Read the Press Release Here.

Please visit DRA’s website for more updates on this case.

Staff : August 28, 2019 1:47 pm : News and Updates
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Preliminary Injunction Protects the Rights of Homeless Individuals in Santa Rosa

On July 12, 2019, the Northern District of California entered a stipulated preliminary injunction in Vannucci v. County of Sonoma, Case No. 3:18-cv-01955-VC, a civil rights lawsuit brought in spring of 2018 by homeless individuals and the advocacy organization Homeless Action! against the City of Santa Rosa, the County of Sonoma, and the Sonoma County Community Development Commission regarding Defendants’ enforcement of anti-camping laws against homeless persons without first offering adequate shelter that met their disability-related needs.

“This stipulated preliminary injunction will help to protect the rights of homeless individuals with disabilities, and to promote meaningful access to homeless services in Sonoma County.”
– Melissa Morris, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Project.

The injunction, which applies to enforcement actions against homeless persons living on public property within the city of Santa Rosa (including County owned property within Santa Rosa, will be in effect August 12, 2019, through June 30, 2020.  It requires that, before the City or County takes an enforcement action against a homeless individual who has established a dwelling outdoors, they must first provide that individual reasonable notice and make an offer of adequate shelter. The injunction defines adequate shelter based on a variety of factors, including an individual’s specific, disability-related needs, their having a service animal or pet, their gender, and their religious or ethical beliefs.

“Criminally punishing homeless individuals for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane. This agreement will help to ensure that the City and County will offer adequate placements instead of simply arresting and citing people for camping or conducting other life sustaining activities which they must do in order to survive.”
– Adrienne Lauby, a founding member of Homeless Action!

Adequacy will also depend on the conditions of the facility, including a requirement that the shelter be immediately available for 30 consecutive days or more, and that the shelter must be open both days and nights.  The injunction also establishes requirements for the preservation and storage of homeless individuals’ personal property, including a prohibition against destroying homeless individuals’ unattended (as opposed to abandoned) property and a requirement to store personal property for 90 days.

PILP, along with California Rural Legal Assistance, represents Plaintiffs Nicholle Vannucci, Ellen Brown, Shannon Hall, and Homeless Action!

Read PILP and CRLA’s Press Release Here.

Staff : August 2, 2019 1:49 pm : News and Updates
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Thank you to Our Donors, Grantors, and Foundation Sponsors

Public and private grantors are an invaluable source of support for the Public Interest Law Project.

With the generous donations and grants we receive, PILP is able to ‘Advance justice for low-income people and communities.’

We would like to recognize and thank the following organizations and partners for their continued support:

Please consider donating to the Public Interest Law Project today. 


Staff : July 22, 2019 2:57 pm : Spotlight
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Congrats Mike!

We are proud to announce that PILP’s Director, Michael Rawson was honored with the the David B. Bryson Memorial Award at National Housing Law Project’s Housing Justice Network Conference on May 19, 2019.
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Staff : June 6, 2019 9:33 am : Spotlight
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Making a Difference: California Legal Aid, 2017 Impact Report

The California State Bar has released the Legal Aid Impact Report, reporting on cases closed in 2017

The California State Bar is excited to share the Legal Aid Impact Report. The report is based on the first full year of statewide outcome data collected for cases closed in 2017.

“Increasing access to the legal system is core to our mission, and we are proud to support the dedicated, life-changing work of the legal aid community, not only with grant dollars but with collaborative efforts such as this groundbreaking report,” said Leah T. Wilson, Executive Director of the State Bar of California. “Legal aid serves millions of Californians, improves communities, and provides economic benefits to the state that we are only beginning to measure.”

The State Bar awarded over $37 million in legal aid grants in 2017. This report focuses broadly on outcomes achieved in 2017 by these grantees in serving low-income Californians, regardless of the source of funding, including their State Bar grant as well as other private and public funds.

Michael Rawson, Director of The Public Interest Law Project stated “It is amazing that legal services programs in California can achieve these results with so little resources. But, with entrenched segregation and the torrent of gentrification and displacement, programs remain vastly under-resourced to meet the burgeoning need.”

The report spotlights outcomes and client stories about legal aid in the areas of health, domestic violence, housing and homelessness, justice in the workplace, immigration and immigrant rights, consumer protection, seniors, children, people with disabilities, veterans, and disaster response.

“There are so many benefits of legal representation that cannot be quantified, but this report shows that legal aid has a tremendous impact on the lives of the most vulnerable residents in California. With approximately 8,000 low-income persons for every one legal aid lawyer, we need to keep fighting to increase access to these critical resources,” said Lauren Hansen, Staff Attorney at PILP overseeing public benefits cases.

By providing free legal assistance to low-income Californians, legal aid providers meet basic needs like food, shelter, and safety, help individuals in crisis, address systemic inequities and revitalize communities. Legal aid intervention can help keep a family intact and in their home, help an individual remain employed or in school, and improve health outcome.



Established as a statewide support center, The Public Interest Law Project (PILP), is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation that provides litigation support, policy advocacy, consultation and training for legal services and other public interest law programs throughout California. PILP is recognized throughout California and nationally for the expertise it brings to public benefits, affordable housing, civil rights, and redevelopment law.

Read the full California Legal Aid 2017 Impact Report.

Staff : January 30, 2019 12:47 pm : News and Updates
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California Joins Kennedy Commission in Legal Action Against the City of Huntington Beach Over Its Unlawful Housing Plan

The state will file companion litigation against the City of Huntington Beach accusing it of willfully refusing to comply with state housing law

January 25, 2019 – Kennedy Commission and low-income veterans, represented by The Public Interest Law Project, Public Law Center, Legal Aid Society of Orange County, and Jones Day have been pursuing litigation to require Huntington Beach to make sites available for affordable housing since 2015. Today, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state will launch a new, strong approach to enforce state law against a city, using AB 72 to sue the City of Huntington Beach for violating state housing law.

The state accuses the City of standing in the way of affordable housing production and looks to force the City to amend its housing plan to encourage “the development of additional housing units that are accessible to residents of all income levels.”

The Governor approved legal action against Huntington Beach and Attorney General Xavier Becerra will file a lawsuit against the City on Friday, January 25, 2019, after extensive attempts to offer partnership and support from the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

PILP Staff Attorney Craig Castellanet, commented on Governor Newsom’s announcement, “We applaud the Governor for making enforcement of state housing law a priority for his administration. We welcome the state’s participation in this effort to address our state’s affordable housing crisis.”

Read Governor Gavin Newsom’s full press release.

Press Coverage:
East Bay Times
San Francisco Chronicle
Sacramento Bee
Los Angeles Times

Staff : January 25, 2019 5:39 pm : News and Updates
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City of Los Angeles Ends Illegal Pocket Veto

The City of Los Angeles has finally dispensed with a longstanding illegal policy and practice that gave individual City Councilmembers unbridled power to decide if, whether, and where supportive and affordable housing projects are built in the City. As a consequence, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE Action) is dismissing its lawsuit challenging this illegal pocket veto.

For years, advocates have complained that the City’s use of Letters of Acknowledgement and Support violates fair housing laws and impedes housing projects that our community desperately needs. The use of such local approval requirements are also a nationally recognized impediment to fair housing. But prior to filing our lawsuit, the City ignored all demands to stop its illegal policy and practice.

As a direct result of this litigation, the City has completely and permanently eliminated all such letter requirements. The City’s actions go well beyond the requirements of last year’s state Assembly Bill 829, which prohibits state assistance for housing developments that are subject to such letter requirements. The City has removed the letter requirements from all of its affordable and low income housing loan programs that use state as well as local funding, including the Affordable Housing Managed Pipeline and the Proposition HHH programs. As a result, individual City Councilmembers can no longer utilize a pocket veto to unilaterally block, delay or condition housing projects for any or no reason at all. Nor can they use this practice to insert additional discriminatory barriers to projects, such as requiring the support of neighborhood councils.

We are pleased to have largely achieved the goals of our lawsuit. It’s unfortunate that it took so many years for the City to do the right thing, but we are satisfied that the City has made progress. We will continue to monitor the City’s actions, and take appropriate steps as necessary, to ensure that it does not erect additional arbitrary barriers to affordable and supportive housing.

ACCE Action is represented by PILP, Public Counsel, and Rosen Bien Galvan and Grunfeld LLP.

Read More Here.

Staff : January 18, 2019 4:25 pm : News and Updates
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Judge Orders the City of Encinitas to Adopt a Housing Element; City’s first since 1992

On December 12, 2018, Judge Frazier of the San Diego Superior Court ordered the City of Encinitas to adopt its first housing element since 1992 without subjecting the necessary zoning changes to density and height limitations to the voters for approval.

San Diego voters approved Proposition A in 2013, requiring all height and density increases to be approved by a majority of voters, even when density and height changes are required to comply with state housing element law and to provide adequate sites to accommodate the City’s fair share of the region’s housing projections.

On behalf of Lorraine Del-Rose and the organization, San Diego Tenants United, PILP, San Diego Voluntary Lawyer’s Program, and Cozen O’Connor sued the City of Encinitas after the voters rejected the City’s housing element. Several weeks after our lawsuit was filed, the Building Industry Association filed an almost identical suit that was related and assigned to the same judge.

The Court ordered the City to adopt a housing element with the necessary zoning changes within 120 days and without subjecting the plan to the voters. This marks the first time the City will identify adequate sites for lower-income households in three decades.

To view the Judge’s order, click HERE.

Staff : January 9, 2019 2:40 pm : News and Updates
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Public interest legal services lost a great warrior, leader, and mentor this week. Stephen Ronfeldt, a co-founder of PILP, Director of Litigation of the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County, member of the inaugural class of the Reginald Heber Smith fellows and the 2018 recipient of the Loren Miller Legal Services Award, passed away peacefully on December 1 at home with his loving family around him.
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Staff : December 10, 2018 10:38 am : Brilliant and Compassionate, Spotlight
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San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to Implement State Mandate

Read the Press Release Here. more »

Staff : November 29, 2018 3:24 pm : News and Updates
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