Impact Outpost / Legal aid for neighborhoods in need
Positive eviction outcomes through legal aid
When tenants are provided with short-term legal assistance and/or supportive services before an eviction occurs, eviction can be averted and homelessness can be prevented. Impact Outposts are designed to serve as semi-permanent hubs bringing legal services and social services to the San Francisco neighborhoods most in need.
If the Impact Outpost program prevented just 25 evicted tenants from entering homeless shelters, we could save the City of San Francisco over $1,125,000 in homeless services for one year.
Many evictions occur because of trivial or illegal reasons. If lawyers were available to all tenants in San Francisco, we could dramatically reduce the number of evictions occurring and improve the outcome for those who are evicted.
We know that we can’t prevent a lack of housing in San Francisco. and we can’t prevent all evictions. But can we change how tenants interact with their landlords and how they navigate the system?
The San Francisco eviction crisis
In 2014, 2,120 eviction notices were filed in San Francisco, a 54.7% increase from five years prior. More and more people are being evicted, and this number only reflects filed notices; many more were actually served.
Of the tenants facing eviction in 2014, 42% earned only 15% of the Federal Annual Median Income: an average of around $10,000 per year. It’s nearly impossible to fight evictions with little to no means. It's reported that only 14% of unrepresented (i.e. with no legal aid) tenants retained possession of their housing, while 55% of represented tenants did.
If we can’t change the system, what can we change? We started this project with our eyes wide open, knowing that this was a big question with few answers. We wanted to find a way to explore issues with housing in the San Francisco Bay Area - but we weren’t sure where exactly to start, and where we could make a dent.
In order to find out where we could begin to approach this issue, we hit the streets of San Francisco. We talked to renters. We talked to homeowners. We talked to people working in organizations that assist tenants. We did research to back up what we learned with social services data and statistics.
In the United States everyone has the right to an attorney, but only in criminal cases. In civil cases like housing disputes, tenants are left to fend for themselves. There is currently only about one legal aid lawyer for every 6,500 legal needs experienced by low-income people every year in the US, and number is closer to one for every 10,000 in San Francisco.
Yet legal aid is incredibly effective: people are 5-10 times more likely to win their case if they are represented by a lawyer. Without this aid, people cannot protect their rights to stay in their housing, protect their property from seizure, or keep custody of their children.
We decided to research and connect with San Francisco human service agencies that offer legal aid - in particular, Bayview Hunters Point Community Legal (BHPCL) in order to better understand the housing system landscape.
Bayview Hunters Point Community Legal has proven that outcomes are better for tenants when they work with a lawyer — even if they get evicted. Not only do tenants have someone on their side who can navigate through all the fine print, but they also have someone who can help them negotiate outcomes that benefit both parties involved. Yet BHPCL can only serve so many people at their current size and location in the Bayview neighborhood, and need help to scale their operations in order to reach more people.
After a series of interviews, "ridealongs," additional research, and design sessions, we developed a solution that would meet the needs of the BHPCL staff and clients: a legal office mini-hub prototype. Housed in a refurbished shipping container, the hub would be a cost-effective, environmentally-friendly, and semi-mobile space for BHPCL to meet with tenants facing evictions to get advice, legal aid support, and screening for other social services.
Our proposed method of service delivery is to develop semi-permanent legal-aid hubs that can be placed in neighborhoods in BHPCL’s service area, which we dubbed "Impact Outposts."
Impact Outposts can serve as an outreach branch for Bayview Hunters Point Community Legal, as a way for tenants to achieve positive court outcomes, settle with their landlords, and find other permanent housing.
Impact Outposts will also be able to provide a comprehensive engagement with clients at a lower cost by utilizing volunteers, social workers and paralegal staff — who provide comprehensive case counseling and benefits advocacy, and only utilize attorneys for specific legal services, such as full representation of a case.
The Impact Outpost also provides visibility for the organization and expands their outreach potential.
Impact Outposts would bring legal services closer to the source of the problem. Having readily accessible legal aid coupled with screening for public benefits, will not only reduce the number of evictions occurring in San Francisco, but it will also help mitigate some of root causes of housing instability.
Preventing future evictions or homelessness from occurring also means addressing the concurrent issues of poverty through both immediate and intermediate social services, including job loss, financial literacy, health and disability, access to childcare and social programs. Impact Outposts would also serve as hubs for resources and referrals.
Social return on investment
By preventing eviction and the loss of housing, entry into homeless shelters will be far less likely for tenants. Emergency shelters and services are usually equally or more expensive than transitional housing and permanent supportive housing.
The average cost per homeless person in San Francisco is around $61,000 per year, but housing support and social services combined, is only about $16,000 per person.
After factoring in the cost of providing social services, if the Impact Outpost program prevented just 25 evicted tenants from entering homeless shelters, we could save the City of San Francisco over $1,125,000 in homeless services for one year.