About a dozen people sat on wood benches outside of the Self Help Center at the San Mateo County Courthouse in Redwood City on a recent Monday. Every weekday, the center helps people fill out paperwork and understand their rights in domestic violence, child custody and divorce matters.
On Monday mornings, the center partners with the Legal Aid Society to hold a legal clinic for landlords and tenants with housing issues.
Inside the clinic, Susan Miller of East Palo Alto sat down with a law student intern to talk about her dispute with her landlord over utilities.
Miller — whose name has been changed to protect her identity in possible litigation — noticed she was paying the Pacific Gas and Electric bill for her entire apartment building, which only has one electric meter. Along with energy used in her two-bedroom apartment, she is billed for her landlord’s office, the building’s three garages, entryway, camera system and laundry room, she said.
When she brought this to the attention of her landlord, Miller, who is almost 70, said her landlord intimidated and retaliated against her.
Tears began running down her face as she talked about feeling threatened in her home.
“I shouldn’t have to live like this,” she said.
Legal Aid Society Staff Attorney Larisa Bowman brought Miller some tissues.
She told Miller that she would look up something in the civil code about shared utilities for her.
“I feel better already,” said Miller, whose friend encouraged her to seek out the Legal Aid Society.
“I want to make sure they don’t do this to anybody else,” she said. “Why should I pay a PG&E bill for an entire apartment building?”
Her monthly energy bills were above $1,000 at one point, she said.
She gathered up her stack of bills and hugged Bowman before leaving the center.
“I have become empowered to do this,” she said.
But Miller also knows there are no guarantees that things will play out in her favor against the landlord.
“But I know at least these people know what’s going on,” she said.
Feeling the squeeze
Staff attorney Bowman glanced around the clinic. Two law student interns were helping tenants and one attorney was advising a Spanish-speaking landlord.
Many people who come to the Landlord Tenant Clinic have been served with eviction notices, said Bowman.
A tenant has five days — counting weekends — to file an eviction response with the court. On the sixth day, if the court has not received a response, it can enter a default judgment against the tenant, she said. The default judgment then authorizes the sheriff to evict the tenants.
A lot of people who get an eviction notice just throw up their hands and wait for the sheriff because they don’t know what else to do, said Bowman.
She checked her sign-up sheet to see how many more clients needed to be seen for the day.
To prepare an eviction notice can take about an hour with a client. Sometimes, with 20 people hoping to be seen during the three-hour weekly clinic, Bowman feels the squeeze.
“There’s a lot of waiting that goes on which I feel bad about,” she said.
But she’s thankful for the help she gets from interns and volunteers.
“Sometimes it’s just me,” she said.
Limited clerk hours add inconvenience
“You lose your right very quickly in an eviction case, more so than in any other civil legal proceeding,” said Shirley Gibson, directing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
The Legal Aid Society holds the Landlord and Tenant Clinic on Monday mornings at the Superior Court, and has two other clinics for tenants: one in Daly City at the Community Services Center on Tuesday afternoons and one on Fridays at the Fair Oaks Community Center in Redwood City.
“We try to capture people before they default,” said Gibson, adding that most people need some help with understanding their forms or the legal process.
While there are a few options for help with an eviction response, the decreased hours at the court clerk’s office make it increasingly difficult to get help and file the response with the court within the five days.
“The problems with the recent court cutbacks [are that] we have one location where people from all over the county come to file their papers,” said Gibson.
No matter where you are in the county, you must file your documents at the clerk’s office in Redwood City, she said.
Due to budget cuts, the clerk’s office now closes at 2 p.m. and has a document drop-box available until 4 p.m.
For people traveling far distances to Redwood City, these early closures can add to the challenges of filing paperwork.
Gibson hopes that an electronic filing system will one day alleviate these geographic challenges, but knows that the court must first deal with its immediate budget crisis before it can begin exploring innovative projects.
One-stop shop could disappear
There are an average of 2,000 eviction cases filed each year in the county, said Gibson. That number has remained pretty consistent over last three years, but the default rate has been shrinking due to increased outreach.
According to Gibson, in 2007, the county had a 56 percent eviction default rate. Last year, that number was down to 35 percent.
“It’s still too much,” she said. “We do the best we can.”
The Landlord Tenant Clinic at the Superior Court allows for a one-stop shop for people who need help with filling out their legal documents and need to file their paperwork with the clerk. Unfortunately, the clinic could cease to exist after this year.
The five-year grant from the California State Bar Association for the clinic ends this year, said Gibson. And continuing the clinic without some added funding from the court is highly unlikely.
“The idea was to provide something that would be absorbed by the court but, in this budget climate, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said.
The two legal areas where the majority of people are self-represented are family law and housing cases, said Gibson. The court is required to give legal assistance to people with family law cases, but not housing, she said.
Family Law Facilitator
In San Mateo County, 70 percent to 80 percent of people in family law cases are self-represented, said Self Help Center and Family Law Facilitator Supervising Attorney Greg Tanaka.
Enormous court budget cuts mean resources for self-represented people are stretched thin. Since 2009, the Self Help Center has seen a 50 percent reduction in staff, said Tanaka. Consequently, the center has seen a 30 percent reduction in the number of people they are able to see.
Those who are not getting legal assistance are at risk of making errors or misfiling their paperwork. They are then forced to return to court, Tanaka said.
Many of these people end up seeking help from the center eventually, he said.
Like the entire county court system, the Self Help Center has tried to maintain its core services in spite of the cuts, said Tanaka.
It has even increased operating hours by opening at 8:30 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. The center — operating on a first-come, first-served basis — remains open through the lunch hour. And attorneys and volunteers work beyond the operating hours to get through the daily sign-up sheet, he said. This way, clients who have traveled for hours on public transportation or taken a day off work don’t have to come back for another day, said Tanaka.
“It’s not uncommon for people to take a half or full day off of work,” he said. “We know the sacrifices people have to make to come here to get help.”
This year, state lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown are being praised for passing a budget with a projected surplus. But the third branch of government, the judiciary, is not feeling the relief, said John Fitton, San Mateo County executive court officer.
“The courts have been going through an unprecedented reduction in resources,” he said. “The good news is we got partial restoration.”
The recently passed state budget will restore a fraction of the cuts that the courts have incurred since 2008, enabling the local court to bring back one commissioner, eight staffers and restore one courtroom. These resources will add to the overall support network available to self-represented people needing help with housing and family law cases, said Fitton.
Whether the court will be able to restore clerk hours and maintain the Landlord Tenant Clinic remains to be seen. Increasing service hours and maintaining resources are contingent upon lawmakers restoring more permanent funding at the beginning of 2014, he said.