By Greta Cobar
Equal access to justice is just another one of the many American dreams that we are still dreaming about. This is a story about a group of committed individuals dedicated to closing the access to justice gap.
The dedicated staff of the Eviction Defense Network, a nonprofit community based organization, provide affordable legal representation to those facing eviction. They make a real difference in the lives of those going through the worst times of their lives.
“If you have to worry where you’re gonna spend the night, it’s very hard to do anything but survive. Families that are displaced by eviction find themselves searching for replacement housing in a market with extremely high rents, a low vacancy rate, and with an eviction on their record. This results in instability, and in some cases, homelessness,” Elena Popp, co-founder of the Eviction Network, told the Beachhead.
“People are losing their homes because they don’t have a lawyer,” Popp said to herself in 2002. And then she demanded: “There must be a better solution!”
And so the Eviction Defense Network was co-founded by her and her life partner, Bridgett Gonzalez, on August 7, 2003 with $10,000 from their savings account.
Out of the about 70,000 evictions filed in the LA County in 2002, only two percent had legal representation in court. That number rose to approximately ten percent by 2012 thanks to the model developed by the staff at the Eviction Defense Network.
Legal services at the Eviction Defense Network are provided based on someone’s ability to pay and range between $400 and $1,200. Most clients end up paying $600-800 for a qualified and committed lawyer to handle their entire eviction case.
According to Popp, the two most commonly asked questions about the Eviction Defense Network are: 1) How can you charge so little to handle an entire case? and: 2) How do you expect low-income people to pay that much money?
“To answer the second question, less than 1% of the tenants that go to court alone win. Going to court alone means being displaced. It costs more than $1,200 to move. It is worth investing the funds on representation. Payment plans are available and we work hard to ensure that inability to pay is not an obstacle,” Popp said.
“To answer the second question, if we average $500 per case, it pays for the team that can provide services to 700 people. We are non-profit and operate very efficiently.”
Popp reports that while she recently spent five days representing a family of three living in a very low cost rent-controlled unit for a fee of $500, this is relatively unusual. “We have a good reputation. Most of our cases settle – it is relatively unusual for the other side to want to go to trial.”
Not just that, but the Eviction Defense Network takes all cases, does not turn anyone away, and makes sure everyone gets represented.
“Before we opened the Eviction Defense Network, I would have to sit in court waiting for my cases to be called. There would be as many as fifty cases on the calendar; I would have about 5 of them. I would watch tenants struggle with cases that were completely winnable … but the tenant did not know how to present the case. Or I would listen to the terms of the settlement that had been shoved down the tenant’s throat, and sometimes the terms were so bad that the tenant would have been better off losing. Everyone is entitled to a defense,” Popp said.
I personally met Elena Popp three years ago, when I was faced with an eviction notice. I attended one of the consultation sessions sponsored by community organizations like the Coalition for Economic Survival and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, where tenants can get a consultation with an attorney for a mere $15-$25 donation, and no one is turned away if they do not have it.
After listening to my case, Elena Popp told me exactly what to do, and thanks to her I am still living in that same apartment now. She thoroughly explained to me what my choices and likely outcomes would be and then sent a certified letter to my landlord. All for a $25 donation that she told me that I do not have to pay if I cannot afford it. For a list of similar consultation sessions, see side bar.
Tenants’ rights is only one of the many movements Popp had been involved in through the years, the complete list being way too long for this paper. They include, however, the Chicano movement, women’s movement, advocating for the rights of the LGBT community and fighting to prevent lead poisoning from paint in children. The list goes back to the progressive movement in Venice, Venice Renters Canvass, Venice Community Housing Corporation, Venice Neighborhood Action Coalition and saving Lincoln Place. No wonder a May 2003 Daily Journal article about her was titled Santa Elena.
“The gap between the need and the available resources is called the Access to Justice Gap. That gap was 98 percent in 2002 and approximately 90 percent today. To launch its next decade, the Eviction Defense Network is announcing an initiative to close the access to justice gap five percent in 2014 and five percent each following year until the Access to Justice Gap is zero,” Popp told the Beachhead.
On November 14, 2013, the Eviction Defense Network will celebrate its ten year anniversary at the Park Plaza Hotel across from McArthur Park. They will be honoring Gary Blasi, a long-term housing rights advocate and lawyer. General admission is $50; for students and low income is $25. You can also sponsor the event by becoming a Champion for Justice for $1000; a Leader for $500; an Advocate for $250; and a Friend for $100. By participating in this event you too can help stop the injustice of displacement without due process faced by 63,000 LA County households each year. For information go to evictiondefensenetwork.org or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Several weeks ago I was counseling a couple with few defenses when I noticed that their 9 year old looked petrified. I asked if he was okay and he lowered his glance as the tears began to stream down his checks; I reached out to him. He walked into my arms and began to sob. Through the tears he revealed his fear that “they” were going to take his mom away. I was instantly transported to 1969 and weeks of hushed conversations amongst the grownups in my life. I too had concluded that the ubiquitous “they” were going to take my mom away; a fear confirmed one morning when the police came to the door with an eviction order.”
FOR HELP BEFORE AN EVICTION
COME TO ONE OF THE FOLLOWING
TENANT’S RIGHTS CLINICS
$15-25 Donation Requested – Consultation, Counsel and Advice
No one turned away due to lack of funds
PICO UNION / WESTLAKE
1930 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90057
LINCOLN HEIGHTS TENANTS
3510 North Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90031
North of Downtown
ALLIANCE OF CALIFORNIANS FOR COMMUNITY EMPOWERMENT (ACCE)
3655 South Grand Avenue, Suite 250
Just South of Downtown
COALITION FOR ECONOMIC SURVIVAL
7377 Santa Monica Blvd.
Senior Center in Plummer Park