Two Santa Clara General Assistance (“GA”) recipients, the Petitioners in Jacques v. County of Santa Clara, et al., have succeeded in eliminating an illegal aid reduction, improving the lives of hundreds of past, present and future recipients. Petitioners were represented by the Public Interest Law Project (PILP), Asian Law Alliance (ALA), Bay Area Legal Aid (Bay Legal), and Paul Hastings LLP.
The County agreed to stop reducing GA recipients’ already very small grant by more than half, to only $147 per month, if they cannot get signed statements from their landlords verifying their rent. Instead, as with other application requirements, recipients can provide their own written statements verifying their rental amounts and other housing details. The settlement was entered as a judgment on March 29, 2013.
GA is a cash aid program of last resort, for severely indigent lawful county residents with nowhere else to turn. Most recipients are single men, past middle age, without any significant assets or income, who are ineligible for other benefits. Many have disabilities, some as a result of their service to our country, but must wait – sometimes for years – for their applications for Veterans’ or other disability-based benefits to be decided.
The County’s policy forced many recipients into homelessness. Given their very low incomes, many GA recipients sublet shared rooms, toolsheds, the use of a couch, etc., from other very poor people. These “landlords” may have disabilities, limited English, or other reasons why they cannot provide verification forms to the County. Even asking a landlord for the required forms might put a GA recipient at risk of being evicted. Many recipients’ aid was slashed to only $147 per month, through no fault of their own. As ALA staff attorney Jackie Maruhashi said, “The Jacques judgment will make a real difference for my clients and other GA recipients, now and into the future.”
In June, 2011, the Court of Appeal invalidated a different county’s policy of reducing GA if a recipient’s landlord refused to provide a Social Security Number. The court ruled it was unlawful to reduce last resort aid based on the actions or inactions of a third party, such as a landlord. Cleary v. County of Alameda, 196 Cal. App. 4th 826 (2011).
All counties did not immediately comply with Cleary. “Unlike with other benefits like CalWORKs or CalFresh, there’s no state or federal oversight of county GA programs,” said PILP staff attorney Judith Gold. “But when we join forces with strong legal services organizations, like Asian Law Alliance and Bay Area Legal Aid, and have the generous assistance of powerhouse lawyers like Jeff Michalowski, Jamie Williams and Elizabeth Dorsi of Paul Hastings, we can bring all 58 counties into compliance with the GA laws.”
Petitioners’ counsel attempted to resolve this problem with the county, but when discussions failed, affected clients of ALA and Bay Legal filed suit, asking not just for their own back benefits, but for the program-wide reform that is now accomplished by the settlement. Current recipients are no longer having their GA reduced because their landlord won’t verify the rent. Previously affected recipients can also obtain lump sum payments of withheld aid going as far back as March, 2011. The claim form must be submitted by August 26, 2013.
Jeff Michalowski of Paul Hastings LLP said, “The County is now doing the prudent as well as the humane thing. By preventing many people from becoming homeless, the reformed policy will save much more, in public health costs alone, than the grant cut might have ‘saved’ in the short term.”
Lisa Newstrom, Managing Attorney for Bay Legal’s Santa Clara Region, said “We wish litigation hadn’t been necessary, but we want to recognize the County’s willingness to reconsider its position. Its new rule benefits the entire community.”
Early Success at Saving Redevelopment Affordable Housing Funds: $60 Million Preserved in City of Industry & Alameda!
January 2, 2013 – The Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH) won a temporary restraining order from the Sacramento Superior Court stopping the Department of Finance (DOF) from requiring the Los Angeles County Auditor Controller and the successor redevelopment agency of the City of Industry to redistribute $38 million that had been designated for affordable housing uses. more »
Low Income Orange County Residents Reach Settlement to Increase General Relief Benefits and Eliminate Application Barriers
After eighteen months of investigation and negotiations with the County, Orange County General Assistance recipients and applicants reached a comprehensive settlement more »
(Sacramento, CA) – In a July 19, 2012 decision, Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley granted the Sacramento Housing Alliance’s petition challenging the City of Folsom’s elimination of its affordable housing program. more »
July 17, 2012 – Renewed Hope, Alameda’s housing advocacy organization, won a long fought victory when the City adopted its first valid housing element plan for affordable housing since 1990. Along with the housing element the City adopted an overlay zoning ordinance that will rezone enough sites in Alameda to accommodate 2400 housing units—Alameda’s regional “fair share” of the Bay Area’s need for affordable housing.
The housing element, which has been approved by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and the zoning overlay override the City’s long standing “Measure A” which prohibits any multifamily housing development in the city. Adopted in 1973, the measure presented a virtually insurmountable barrier to the development of housing affordable to lower income households. Renewed Hope is represented by attorneys from PILP and Public Advocates, Inc.
June 13, 2012 – After ignoring its obligation since 1992 to adopt a housing element for its general plan to provide for the city’s fair share of affordable housing, the City responded to advocacy and litigation by more »
In 1980, the City of Sunnyvale adopted an ordinance requiring new housing development to make 12.5% of units affordable or otherwise pay an in-lieu. A developer challenged the ordinance in 2009 claiming the requirement was unconstitutional. After the trial court dismissed the case on statute of limitations grounds, the developer appealed.
The Public Interest Law Project along with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley filed a brief of amici curiae in support of Sunnyvale. The court of appeals, relying in part on the amicus briefing, held that inclusionary zoning requirements are not monetary exactions on development. Significantly, the court acknowledged that the purpose of inclusionary housing—to ensure future housing development includes affordable housing—is a legitimate public purpose of local government.
PILP represented Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, California Coalition of Rural Housing, Southern California Association of Affordable Housing, San Diego Housing Federation and Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County.
Trinity Park LLP v. City of Sunnyvale, 193 Cal.App.4th 1014 (2011).
On May 26, 2011, General Assistance recipients in Alameda County won a significant legal victory which will protect thousands of GA recipients throughout California from becoming homeless due to an illegal county policy. In an eloquent, unanimous opinion, in Cleary v. Alameda County the California Court of Appeal invalidated Alameda County’s W-9 policy which drastically cut GA grants if the recipients’ landlords did not file W-9 tax forms. If landlords did not file these forms, the County would deny recipients the housing portion of their aid, leaving them, through no fault of their own, $105 per month or $3.50 per day on which to survive.
Alameda County claimed it was obligated under federal tax law to report rent payments it made to GA recipients’ landlords from the recipients’ GA stipends even though it had been diverting a portion of GA recipients’ rent directly to their landlords for 20 years without making these reports. In January 2009, when the County suddenly announced its W-9 policy The Public Interest Law Project (PILP) and Bay Area Legal Aid (BALA) asked that the County drop this unlawful and inhumane policy, and when it refused, filed suit. While the case was pending, the County revised its policy many times, eventually branding it as one of ‘in kind aid’ and promising to offer shelter beds to GA recipients whom it forced into homelessness. Nearly a year after the suit was filed, and on the eve of trial, the County procured an opinion letter from the I.R.S. that it had the right to demand landlords’ W-9s. But PILP argued that the I.R.S. letter should be given little weight, and that in any event, any tax reporting obligation could not justify slashing recipients’ aid based upon the conduct of their landlords.
On December 23, 2009, calling the grant cut “cruel,” the Honorable Frank Roesch of the Alameda County Superior Court issued a writ of mandate, ordering the County to abandon its W-9 grant cut. The court found that no tax reporting obligation actually existed and the County had obtained its I.R.S. opinion letter based upon sworn representations that were “untrue,” and agreed with the petitioners’ argument that even if a reporting obligation had existed, the federal tax laws cannot override a county’s obligations under the California welfare statutes to provide last resort assistance. The County appealed.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, agreeing that even if a tax reporting obligation existed, which it did not, “the County may not voluntarily implement a policy which conflicts with the mandates of the general assistance law.” Furthermore, the Court said, “a policy which fosters homelessness is inimical to the very purpose of GA legislation.”
Cleary has statewide importance. Many other counties reduce or even deny GA recipients’ aid if their landlords do not supply their Social Security Numbers. With the publication of Cleary, they will presumably abandon these unlawful policies. More broadly, the decision reemphasizes that GA must be administered humanely, and declares that a policy that forces people who have homes to become homeless in order to receive any housing aid is inhumane and violates state law.
Paul Hastings Janofsky and Walker LLP joined PILP and Bay Legal after judgment was entered in the Trial Court, and provided invaluable wisdom on the appeal brief. Five long-time friends of PILP, Legal Services of Northern California, Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations, Homeless Action Center, Asian Law Alliance, and the California Tax Reform Association, joined in two very effective amicus briefs. The amicus briefs were drafted by attorneys at Shearman & Sterling LLP and Dechert LLP. All of the amici, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Legal Aid Society of Orange County, CRLA and others joined in letters requesting publication of the decision, and the request was granted on June 17, 2011.