With the fear of legal fees, many people may avoid getting the legal assistance they need. California Rural Legal Assistance helps to alleviate this burden on rural communities by providing free legal assistance.
They have offices throughout California; the Delano office also serves Shafter, McFarland, Wasco, and Lost Hills. The issues they mainly deal with consist of housing, employment, and education.
Dawn Alejandro, a law grad with CRLA, discussed how rewarding it is to see that burden lifted off of their clients.
“Seeing that burden lifted off their shoulders, physically, you can see the reaction… I don’t know the exact word. It’s just a great feeling knowing that you helped them in their situation. No matter how small. To them, that’s huge,” said Alejandro.
The change he can provide is a big reason why he switched from working at a government firm to working for CRLA.
“During my tenure with them, I felt like I wanted to do more, but I was kind of limited in capacity as far as what I could do,” said Alejandro. “There’s not a lot of pro-bono firms or firms like CRLA that offer representation at no cost to the low-income communities, and that is something that I really wanted to do even when I was in law school.”
The passion to help the community is felt throughout the team at CRLA. Eduardo Medina, a Directing Attorney with CRLA, grew up with farmworker parents and started helping them with work when he was young. He went on to attend UC Davis, where he found his inspiration.
“Thanks to my parents’ efforts and the opportunities that I have had in the United States, I was able to follow in my siblings’ footsteps and was the third child in my family to graduate from UC Davis,” said Medina. “As a Chicano Studies Major, I learned about the injustices that not only Chicanx communities endured but other minorities. I was inspired to pursue a legal career to make a positive impact in the agriculture working community.”
He then went to McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, CA. In 2019, he was sworn into the California State Bar and worked for a private firm.
“I knew that my ultimate goal was to work for a non-profit like CRLA. I interned at the Delano Office after completing my first year at McGeorge and knew that the work CRLA was doing was impactful and wanted to eventually work for them,” said Medina. “So I transitioned from the private sector and began working with CRLA doing homeless prevention advocacy in Stockton and the surrounding communities for the Agriculture Worker Program.
After leaving CRLA to gain more experience and coming back to CRLA but in Delano as a Directing Attorney, he stated that one of his first cases was in his hometown, Wasco.
It was an eviction case, and being able to advocate for the family, according to Medina, “confirmed why I became an attorney.”
Housing continues to be a pressing issue among the cases at CRLA. Both Alejandro and Medina spoke about the topics they see.
There’s a huge housing problem in California, whether there’s not enough that is affordable,” said Alejandro. “Here in our county alone, I’m always shocked to see the homeless community that needs our help.”
He stated that in Kern County, he believes factors that go into the housing crisis are employment and affordable housing.
“With employment, affordability as far as matching a person’s earnings goes side by side with the affordability of the housing that they have. But we don’t have enough affordable housing, I think,” said Alejandro.
Medina mentioned that most of the eviction cases they see are for non-payment of rent. For their clients, it is often due to the loss of employment. He also stated that there is an issue with rent increases.
“A lot of landlords want to increase the rent, and they try to use loopholes within the tenant protection act. There’s some legislation that’s trying to change that, but it’s still present where landlords can say they’re selling their house, or they’re removing it from the rental market, or they’re doing substantial repairs, and they give a 60-day notice for the tenets to vacate and then the tenets get scared. They move out, or they get forced out through an eviction process, and then the landlord re-rents,” said Medina.
He stated that these loopholes are common. For example, if the landlord is evicting to make repairs, there are specific permits they need before doing so; however, it will be seen that they have yet to do that when evicting the tenants. Reasons for not having the permits pulled can either be because they did not know they were supposed to or they have no plans to really do them.
“They’re just trying to get the current tenants who have the protection of the Tenant Protection Act not to get rental increases over that 10 percent or five percent plus the consumer price index. So they’re able to get tenets out and then get new tenets in at whatever rental rate they want, and it basically circumvents those protections,” said Medina.
Other cases can be due to non-payment of rent because a tenant is withholding rent. This happens when a home is uninhabitable, and they have asked the landlord to fix it, and after a reasonable amount of time, it still needs to be fixed. For this case to work, however, there needs to be written notice of the issue, and the tenant needs to have the money for rent in their bank account.
Due to there being so many housing cases, Medina explained that CRLA holds clinics to assist in unlawful detainers so community members can better understand the process of evictions and how to prepare a response for the eviction.
The clinics have a presentation and explanation on how to answer because they legally have to answer in order not to get a default judgment. Medina stated this gives them more time to look for alternative housing. The clinics are by appointment to be able to accommodate different deadlines, and they have language interpreters available.
Both Medina and Alejandro encourage anyone who is hesitant about getting legal aid to reach out and that CRLA is passionate about helping the community.
“We also have a duty to keep everything confidential,” said Medina. “My team and I are all extremely passionate about helping our community and are all members of the communities that we serve. Our clients include individuals with disabilities, immigrant populations, school children, lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgender populations, seniors, veterans, and individuals with limited English proficiency.
With immigration also being a barrier that may stop people from seeking legal aid, Alejandro stated that they also have an immigration team that handles immigration with employment or housing matters.
“One of the main things we always say from the very beginning is confidentiality. So, whatever we talked about with a potential client would be confidential, so we don’t discuss that anywhere with anyone,” said Alejandro.