San Benito County Board of Supervisors to Implement Mandate to Provide Aid to County’s Neediest Residents
April 2, 2014 – On April 1, 2014, the Board of Supervisors in San Benito County adopted General Assistance regulations for the first time in at least three decades. After California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) and The Public Interest Law Project (PILP), on behalf of the County’s most disadvantaged residents, called for increased access to General Assistance (GA) benefits, the County immediately agreed to update its regulations. This historic event moved the County toward compliance with its legal obligation to provide the County’s neediest residents with the last resort assistance to which they are entitled. The County’s old regulations were out of date, illegal in many respects, and not being used. Instead, almost no extremely low income county residents, despite very high poverty and unemployment rates, have been provided with aid.
The GA program is mandated by state law. It requires counties to provide about $330 dollars per month to severely impoverished lawful residents who have nowhere else to turn. Recipients often are homeless, most are unemployed and unemployable. Many recipients have disabilities, are veterans or both. A significant number are survivors of domestic violence, fleeing their abusers. GA allows these individuals to find modest shelter, such as a shared room, and to begin to become self-sufficient.
San Benito County’s program, however, has been largely non-existent. People who asked for help were told that this county had no such program, and were turned away. “The GA benefit is no Cadillac of benefits,” said CRLA attorney Gretchen Regenhardt, one of the public interest attorneys who first became aware of the problem. “But even this small amount, only about $11 dollars a day, can be lifesaving.” Last year, she said, desperate clients began to appear at CRLA’s offices. They told her that they had asked the County for help, but had been told that there was no GA program, or that they didn’t qualify for any help because they were homeless, or because they had no children, or for some other reason. Phyllis Katz, also an attorney with CRLA, saw many such clients. “I didn’t think that our county was deliberately abandoning such needy persons to destitution and homelessness,” she said. “I felt certain that our Board and social services agency were simply unaware of the County’s legal obligations to these needy citizens, and may have mistakenly believed that help was available from the state or federal government.” However, there was no other help available because by definition, GA is the last resort benefit.
“The problem is not confined to San Benito County,” said Lauren Hansen, a staff attorney at PILP. “Our ongoing Rural General Assistance Project, (Rural GAP) is designed to remedy the fact that so many rural counties have tiny or nonexistent GA programs, probably due to simple unawareness of the law.”
“We’re pleased that the County has been willing to listen to us in a spirit of good will,” said Gretchen Regenhardt. Lauren Hansen agreed, “but we are disappointed that the County included in its regulations a time limit of only three months of aid per year for recipients who are deemed ‘employable,’ but who haven’t actually been able to get jobs, despite their best efforts.”
“A three month time limit means that an ‘employable’ person only gets about $2.75 per day on an annual basis, and that’s not enough to help a person begin to get back on his feet,” said Lauren Hansen. “We believe the Board should not have adopted the time limit, because it is fiscally unwise as well as inhumane,” said staff attorney Judith Gold of PILP. “Employable” recipients whose GA lifelines are cut off will end up on the streets, or in the County’s emergency rooms, at enormous cost.
Great progress has been made, thanks to County employees listening with an open mind. Even while informal discussions have been ongoing, the number of persons receiving help has grown from zero to about thirty-five. “The new regulations are a vast, vast improvement,” said Lauren Hansen. CRLA continues to assist individuals in getting and keeping their GA benefits in San Benito County and beyond.
About CRLA and the Public Interest Law Project
California Rural Legal Assistance, founded in 1966, also a non-profit, provides free legal assistance to indigent and low income individuals and families in rural communities from the Mexican border to Northern California. The Public Interest Law Project is a non-profit public interest law firm focusing on advocacy on behalf of low-income Californians and providing support to legal services programs like CRLA.
March 17, 2014–In a lawsuit filed several days ago in Alameda County Superior Court, an impoverished mother is asking the Court to order the state to require that county welfare agencies give California’s neediest families the help they need to lift themselves to self-sufficiency – assistance the law mandates but which the agencies too often do not provide, or provide too late.
In a scenario that is playing out throughout California, one of the petitioners, Loraine Jones, is about to lose critical CalWORKs benefits despite the law’s requirement that cash payments be accompanied by education, job training and similar services. Had those services been given to Jones years ago, she and her 5-year-old child might now have a chance to escape crushing poverty. But for over three years, the Alameda County welfare department never offered welfare-to-work services. Rather, the County let the 4-year clock run out on her CalWORKs benefits and will now cut her off with no employment skills, and with almost no money to house or feed herself and her child.
“This isn’t the way the welfare system is supposed to work,” said Public Interest Law Project attorney Patti Prunhuber, who represents Jones. “The CalWORKS program sets up mutual responsibilities between the agency and the recipient. Recipients are responsible for participating in welfare-to-work and are penalized if they don’t. The County is responsible for providing needy families with a small cash grant, along with the welfare-to-work services that will allow them to get a job and become self-sufficient. Loraine Jones asked for this help – twice – but the County ignored her. Making sure that counties provide this welfare-to-work assistance is the state’s duty, and by reneging on its responsibilities the state is letting everyone down.”
The problem is not confined to Ms. Jones or to Alameda County. The lawsuit identifies a state-wide, systemic failure by the California Department of Social Services (“CDSS”) to ensure that counties follow the law and make the necessary efforts to provide all eligible CalWORKs recipients the skills they need to achieve economic self-sufficiency. “CDSS is not taking the minimal steps necessary to see that California’s 58 counties follow through on their obligation to timely provide welfare-to-work services. Rather, they just count the months until the time is up, and then cut CalWORKs recipients loose,” said Chris Douglas, of the East Bay Community Law Center, which is also representing Jones and the other petitioners.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the CDSS to require counties to make sure that CalWORKs recipients receive all welfare welfare-to-work services in a timely manner. Additionally, the suit demands that when they fail to do so, that people such as Jones not be terminated from CalWORKs cash aid until they get the welfare-to-work services the Legislature felt they needed to prepare themselves to enter the workforce.
According to Douglas, “Unless people such as Jones receive welfare-to-work training, the problems of poverty will only get worse statewide. In a state where one in four children lives in poverty, that is intolerable.”
About The Public Interest Law Project and the East Bay Community Law Center
The Public Interest Law Project is a public interest law firm focusing on impact litigation and policy advocacy on behalf of low-income Californians. The East Bay Community Law Center is the largest provider of free legal services in the East Bay, and has been advocating for families on welfare since its founding in 1988.
October 28, 2013–In rural counties throughout California, eligible people cannot easily access last resort General Assistance (GA) benefits. Over 20 counties, with high numbers of people living in poverty, have less than 40 people receiving GA. Some have zero, or less than 10. Counties have unlawful and often unwritten eligibility requirements and improperly low grant levels. Some admit that they have no GA program at all. Through its Rural General Assistance Project (Rural GAP), the Public Interest Law Project (PILP) seeks to increase access to these critical benefits and assist local advocates in enforcing counties’ legal duty to provide GA to all needy county residents.
October 11, 2013—The Governor signed AB 325 (Alejo) extending the statute of limitations to challenge a housing element. The bill partially restored the exception to the short 90 day limitations period to challenge a general plan element or zoning ordinance, which had been severely limited by an appellate court decision. The legislation provides that members of the public and other interested groups have up to three years to file a suit attacking an element found out of compliance by the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). Litigants will have up to 17 months to attack the adoption of an element that HCD finds substantially complies with the Housing Element Law. The legislation was sponsored by Western Center on Law & Poverty and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and PILP provided drafting, negotiation assistance and research. Here’s a link to the chaptered bill: Assembly Bill No. 325
Similar legislation had been passed by the Legislature twice before, but the first was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger and the second was vetoed by Governor Brown. The version adopted this year was the result extensive negotiations with all the stakeholders. For housing elements found out of compliance by HCD, advocates have two years to send a 60 day notice to the local government explaining the deficiencies in the housing element. After the 60 day period there is an additional one year period to bring suit. For elements found in substantial compliance by HCD, advocates have 270 days to send a 60 day notice, followed by a six month period to file suit.
The bill also sets up to a 14 month period for challenging a zoning action, growth caps that lack adequate findings or the adoption of density bonus ordinance that violates state Density Bonus Law (Government Code §65915). Finally, the legislation provides that the remedy for failure to adopt an adequate general plan element cannot abrogate or impair rights already vested pursuant to a development agreement or vested subdivision map.
For more information, contact Michael Rawson, email@example.com or 510-891-9794, ext. 145.
Albany residents file suit seeking adoption of a housing element that plans for affordable housing needs
October 4, 2013–A lawsuit was filed yesterday by residents of Albany and the Bay Area against the City of Albany challenging the City’s failure to adopt a housing element as required by state law. Petitioners maintain that the City’s failure – for decades — to make affordable housing a priority harms local residents.
California Housing Element Law requires Albany and all local jurisdictions to periodically assess existing and projected housing needs, including the needs of special populations, and to set forth specific goals, policies, and programs to encourage the preservation and development of housing. Despite these requirements, Albany has failed to update its Housing Element since 1992, leaving Albany’s poorest and most vulnerable residents homeless, or only able to access overcrowded or substandard living spaces.
Petitioners Amber Whitson and Betty Stephenson are homeless and desperately need affordable housing. Whitson, who currently resides at the Albany Bulb, says, “I look forward to the day when I, and others of the same income level, have more options for somewhere to live in Albany, other than the Landfill.” Another Petitioner, Albany Housing Advocates (AHA), is a nonprofit corporation of Albany residents dedicated to the production of affordable housing. AHA’s mission is to support the need of all persons to have safe and secure housing, promote fair housing opportunities, and ensure the City’s compliance with fair housing and housing element requirements. “I’m looking forward to the time when the City of Albany has a Housing Element that is not only in compliance with state requirements, but that also demonstrates a welcoming and all-inclusive attitude toward people at all income levels.” Julie Winkelstein, AHA President.
Petitioners also claim that Albany violates important fair housing laws, because its failure to comply with state land use and planning laws has an unlawful discriminatory effect on protected groups, including persons with disabilities and racial and ethnic minorities. Albany is the only community of 109 jurisdictions in the Bay Area that has not formally submitted a housing element update to the California Department of Housing and Community Development for the current planning period which began in 2009. It also failed to keep its commitment to update its Housing Element as a member of the Alameda County Consortium that receives federal funding for housing and community development.
Petitioners are represented by Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal), the largest provider of free legal services to low-income Bay Area residents and The Public Interest Law Project (PILP). PILP is a state-wide, non-profit support center for legal services programs with expertise in land use and planning and fair housing laws. “Albany has violated the law with impunity since at least 1999 when its last housing element was due,” said Lauren Hansen, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Project. “Given the City’s lack of attention to its neediest residents, it is no surprise that the City has such a large population of people who are chronically homeless.” David Levin, an attorney with BayLegal agrees: “Unfortunately we need to seek a court order requiring the City of Albany to comply with the same legal obligations that other Bay Area jurisdictions have been working to meet.”
Court of Appeals Upholds Constitutionality of Inclusionary Zoning—Affordable Housing Groups & San Jose Successfully Defend the City’s Ordinance
June 6, 2013–In California Building Industry Association v. City of San Jose the Court of Appeal upheld San Jose’s recently adopted inclusionary zoning ordinance against a constitutional attack by the CBIA. The court held that inclusionary zoning ordinances are valid so long as they are “reasonably related” to a legitimate public purpose, which the court found includes addressing a community’s existing need for affordable housing.
PILP, the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati represented intervenors Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, Housing California, California Coalition for Rural Housing, Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, and San Diego Housing Federation in the successful defense of the City’s ordinance against the CBIA’s attack.
The CBIA had argued that an inclusionary zoning ordinance was invalid unless it was justified by the need for affordable housing created by new market rate development.
The case puts to rest this theory which had been used as the basis of a spate of recent litigation attacking local inclusionary housing ordinances. [As of this writing, CBIA has petitioned the California Supreme Court for review, so there is a slight possibility the issue will go up to another court.]
San Jose’s ordinance requires that 15 percent of all units in new residential housing be affordable to lower and moderate income residents. The City joins over 170 local jurisdictions in California that have some form of inclusionary housing policy. These laws are adopted in response to the critical unmet need for housing affordable to lower and moderate income households that continues to plague many Californian communities trying to meet the housing needs of their workforce and dismantle historic patterns of segregation.
For more information contact Michael Rawson. The Court of Appeal’s opinion is available here.
California Building Industry Association v. City of San Jose, 216 Cal. App. 4th 1373 (2013)
Partial Success in Challenge to Exclusionary Zoning in Napa County—Court of Appeal Orders County to Grant Density Bonus to Inclusionary Housing
July 11, 2013–In a suit brought by low income farmworkers in Napa County, the Court of Appeal reversed in part the trial court judgment and held that the state Density Bonus Law requires the County to grant a density bonus to developers of affordable units under the County’s inclusionary zoning ordinance. Now residential developers will be more likely to include affordable housing in their developments rather than opting for alternatives. The case is Latinos Unidos del Valle de Napa Y Solano v. County of Napa co-counseled by PILP, California Rural Legal Assistance and Relman, Dane & Colfax.
After the state Department of Housing and Community Development found that the County’s housing element failed to make available adequate sites for the County’s need for affordable housing Latinos Unidos del Valle de Napa Y Solano, an organization of farmworkers active in Napa County and Solano County, filed suit attacking the validity of the housing element, the County’s density bonus ordinance and the discrimination against affordable housing and minorities caused by the County’s exclusionary zoning laws. Although the Court of Appeals declined to reverse the trial court’s rejection of the housing and fair housing claims, it did not publish those parts of the decision, so they will have no precedent on other courts.
The Court of Appeal nevertheless warned the County that its opinion “should not be read as an endorsement of the county’s plan to encourage the development of affordable housing…Should the county renew its housing element with the knowledge that there is no realistic possibility that it will result in actual development of affordable housing…such an action might well provide evidence of proscribed discrimination.” For more information contact Michael Rawson or Craig Castellanet.
Latinos Unidos Del Valle De Napa Y Solano v. County of Napa, 217 Cal. App. 4th 1160 (2013)
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 »