Achieving a Healthier Los Angeles by Stabilizing our Neighborhoods

Doug Smith-CDP attorneyBy Doug Smith

This article originally appeared on

A growing body of research is reinforcing what public health and housing advocates in Los Angeles have long known: losing your home can be hazardous to your health.

We shouldn’t be surprised. In neighborhoods across Los Angeles, involuntary displacement is generating significant health consequences for individuals, families and entire communities. When forced out of their homes, residents may relocate to areas with fewer health resources. Displaced families often end up in overcrowded and unhealthy housing conditions, or worse, on the street. And when pushed out of their neighborhoods, residents lose connections to doctors, friends, family and cultural networks that help them stay healthy and safe. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups are most at risk of suffering the health impacts of displacement.

Public Counsel represents low-income residents who have seen their homes literally bulldozed to make way for new structures. We work with tenants who face significant rent increases and the prospect of homelessness because the affordability restrictions on their homes will expire in the very near future. We also work directly with residents and organizers in rapidly gentrifying communities, including transit-oriented neighborhoods along the Metro Expo and Gold lines, where real estate speculation is intensifying displacement risks. Skyrocketing housing costs,conversion of rent stabilized units, and waves of evictions are forcing long-time residents from their homes and uprooting families from their neighborhoods. Emerging plans to revitalize the L.A. River arouse these same concerns in low-income river-adjacent communities.

From where we stand, the connection between displacement and negative health outcomes is clear. We have seen elderly residents struggle to access adequate medical care after being separated by hundreds of miles from their long-time primary care physician. We have worked with a displaced tenant whose only option was to live in a garage without running water. We have seen landlords take drastic measures and make baseless claims in order to expel residents from their homes, like forcing families to live in uninhabitable conditions without basic health necessities like heat and working plumbing. In many of the communities we work in, displaced families turn to friends and family for shelter, but the resulting overcrowded housing conditions significantly compromise health and well-being.

A growing body of literature from the public health field reinforces what we are seeing and points to long-term negative health impacts. A recent report, informed by the Alameda County Public Health Department, identifies multiple negative health impacts of displacement, including reduced access to health-promoting resources, increased exposure to violence, and heightened chronic stress. Other research indicates that “social loss” — the disruption of social ties and cultural support networks — can cause psychological effects and increased susceptibility to disease and chronic conditions.

Increasing access to green space, healthy food, medical clinics, and employment opportunities in underserved communities is an important step in the quest to tackle our glaring geographic health disparities. But without a corresponding effort to protect long-term residents from being pushed out, many won’t be there to enjoy the benefits.

Fortunately, the Plan for a Healthy L.A. creates an opportunity to collectively explore the links between displacement and health. Through this process, we can elevate neighborhood stabilization efforts as part of a comprehensive strategy to stem the tide of health inequities.

Community based organizations are doing their part by organizing local residents and engaging in the planning process. In my practice, I work with coalitions like the United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) and the Alliance for Community Transit(ACT-LA) that are advancing a framework for healthy, sustainable, and inclusive neighborhood growth that protects and benefits existing residents. Achieving this equitable growth model is a challenge that we must meet.

Here are some of the tools that we can use:

  • Doubling down on enforcement of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance and stepping up efforts to educate tenants about their rights will improve tenant stability and preserve our rental housing stock.
  • A citywide commitment to creating and protecting affordable housing near transit will ensure that low-income residents can continue to access transit and remain in their neighborhoods.
  • Community Plans can help prevent a net loss of housing in our neighborhoods by implementing and coordinating land use tools that both produce new affordable housing and preserve existing affordable housing.
  • Regulating condo conversions will allow us to proactively protect and maintain a neighborhood’s supply of housing opportunities.
  • Enhancing quality employment opportunities and supporting community-serving small businesses can improve the economic health of a neighborhood, not only allowing local residents to remain but to thrive.
  • Limiting incentives and public subsidies to projects that do not displace residents will promote sustainable community growth.
  • Community Land Trusts can expand local control over neighborhood assets.
  • Promoting a model of planning done with people instead of planning done to people will allow local residents to play a meaningful role in authoring the future of their neighborhood.

The Plan for a Healthy L.A. calls for more than hospitals and affordable health care. It is a call to prioritize positive health outcomes in the growth of our city. This commitment to comprehensively analyze future plans and programs through a health lens is a groundbreaking step. But to make our vision for a healthier L.A. a reality, both the Plan and the City’s actions must work to prevent displacement.

Doug Smith is an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow (sponsored by the Ottinger Family Foundation) at Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. As part of Public Counsel’s Community Development Project, Doug works with nonprofit organizations and low-income entrepreneurs to advance economic mobility and improve affordable housing opportunities in Los Angeles.

In every client I help, I see my mother

Lilya-Dischyan-CARES-clerkBy Lilya Dishchyan

“MOM! Our homeless man is at the door!” my brother and I shouted across the living room to our mother when we saw the weirdly familiar silhouette of our unusual friend. My mom quickly ran to her purse to see what she had to offer him that day. My brother and I had gotten used to his frequent unannounced visits over the years. He was a nice man whom we knew only through the comfort of the locked, metal screen door under which my mom would slide him food stamps or coupons from time to time. This was my first experience with a person battling chronic homelessness. My supervisor, Lucy Petrow, might even call it an early form of CalFresh advocacy.

I grew up in a small duplex apartment in Hollywood with my parents and older brother. As immigrants from the war-torn, newly liberated post soviet country of Armenia, my family arrived to the United States with, quite literally, only the clothes on our backs. The airline had misplaced all of our belongings and my non English-speaking parents knew little about the remedies they could seek for such a loss. Fortunately for all of us, we had green cards, which helped my mother apply for much needed government benefits for our family. Looking back on that time now as an advocate for public benefits recipients, I realize how fortunate we were to have a place to live.

As I grew older, I began noticing the colorful cardstock resembling Monopoly money that my mother used to pay for groceries. I also became aware that not all of the students at my school used meal vouchers to pay for their lunches. It was an interesting revelation when I realized that my family was on welfare. Even in elementary school, I felt the various social stigmas of the aid. Looking back, I understand that it was that very aid that gave my mom the ability to provide for our family. That aid is what helped feed my body as well as my ambition, allowing me to excel academically and go to law school to become an advocate for social justice.

My mother earned a nursing diploma from the nursing college of Yerevan College of Nursing in Armenia. Unfortunately, her degree did not offer her the same job opportunities in the US, so she started attending nursing and ESL classes at a local community college. During her time as a student, she worked two jobs, one of which was on campus as a student worker in the office for students with disabilities. Her campus job inspired her onto a new career path in rehabilitation counseling.

My family transitioned off of welfare after my mother graduated from community college. After about 10 years of schooling, she had two AA degrees, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s of science in rehabilitative counseling; but still she received countless rejections from several different employers for about 5 years. My mom is now employed at her dream job as an academic counselor for students with disabilities at the community college where she first learned English.

This is the kind of success story I envision every time I advocate at the various Departments of Social Services (DPSS) in Los Angeles County. As an advocate with the CARES program at Public Counsel (Connecting Angelinos to Resources and Essential Services), I have been able to help countless individuals obtain the benefits to which they are entitled, despite several inappropriate administrative barriers placed on the aid. In every client I help, I see my mother. I see the importance of the $221 a month in general relief cash aid and $189 a month for fresh groceries. I also understand the implications of having to subsist on these programs. Even the slightest gap in benefits can result in a client’s inability to pay rent, which can inevitably lead to homelessness. I have a special connection with every person I assist because I have been in their shoes. I am thankful to Public Counsel and the CARES program for giving me the unique opportunity to serve a very vulnerable population of which I was once a part.

Lilya Dishchyan is a clerk with Public Counsel’s Homelessness Prevention Law Project. Ms. Dishchyan is a rising 3L at Whittier Law School where she is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Child and Family Advocacy and a Fellow at the Center for Children’s Rights.

An ethics check-up for in-house attorneys jumping into pro bono law

Editor’s note: This article is republished with permission of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) as it originally appeared on “The Ethics of Pro Bono.” © 2014 the Association of Corporate Counsel. All rights reserved.


Elizabeth Bluestein - Public CounselBy Elizabeth Bluestein and Michael Sposato

As more legal departments and Association of Corporate Counsel chapters move to identify and create pro bono opportunities for in-house counsel and other legal department staff, it is important to consider the ethical rules that impact pro bono service.

Studies show that more than 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income individuals in the United States go unmet. Millions of people each year find themselves in civil court without legal representation. The lack of available legal resources for people who cannot afford to pay for counsel threatens to undermine our legal framework in which laws are supposed to apply equally without regard to a person’s wealth. Pro bono service by in-house attorneys is crucial to help fill this gap in access to justice.

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Even a small pro bono commitment can mean enormous help

This is the third, and final, blog post in a series about managing pro bono activities for busy attorneys that we are publishing as part of Public Counsel’s Pro Bono Pitch. Click here to read the first and second installments.

Sarah-Luppen---Harder-Mirell-AbramsBy Sarah Luppen

We did it. More than 135 lawyers from more than 35 firms and companies signed up to take on a pro bono matter last month. We signed up to help youth and veterans with their accumulated tickets, assist in adoptions, review partnership agreements and tax forms, revise by-laws, and advise on trademarks and logos—among many other things. More than half of those lawyers work in small law firms and in-house legal departments. For many who signed up, the time commitment was small — an evening after work or a morning before — but for the dozens of clients we assisted, the help was enormous.

That is the take-away from Public Counsel’s Pro Bono Pitch: Everyone can help, and a little bit of your time goes a long way.
On October 21, to kick off National Pro Bono Week, I participated in Public Counsel’s Consumer Law Department’s client intake night at the Los Angeles County Law Library downtown. The volunteer attorneys were paired with local law students and met with clients facing a variety of consumer law issues, including student loan debt, mortgage fraud, and other loan scams. I spent the evening talking to an extremely intelligent, self-sufficient woman who had made the mistake, fifteen years earlier, of defaulting on her student loans. Today, she does not have a job or a home, and she owes her lender thousands of dollars she simply does not have. These conversations are the toughest. There are no good answers to a problem like hers.

And that was my job that night — to tell her that there weren’t going to be answers to this problem; that there wasn’t going to be an easy way out of it, or even a hard way. A lot of times, though, these are the conversations that are most valuable to a pro bono client. We were able to discuss her options, develop a plan for going forward, and assure her that her intelligence and resourcefulness would serve her well. I am confident that it will. And though she started our meeting frustrated and in tears, she left with a plan and resolve.

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Ready to get real about pro bono? First be selfish

This is the second blog post in a series about managing pro bono activities for busy attorneys that we are publishing for National Pro Bono Week, Oct. 20-26, 2013.

Sarah-Luppen---Harder-Mirell-AbramsBy Sarah Luppen

I promised you the “real” story behind pro bono.  Now that I’m sitting down to write it, however, I realize that there isn’t one “real” story.  Every pro bono lawyer, client, and matter is different.

Pro-Bono-Pitch-200px-whiteLawyers interested in taking on pro bono matters include big firm civil litigators, entertainment transactional lawyers, small firm employment lawyers, and lawyers working in-house at studios, tech start-ups, or banks. Clients range from domestic violence victims to teens with daytime curfew tickets to unrepresented defendants in federal court. And pro bono matters can involve a morning answering unrepresented litigants’ civil procedure questions, a day helping individuals apply for food stamps and general relief, or several months representing an individual client from discovery through trial.

The trick is finding the right pro bono opportunity for you. We as lawyers have limited time to devote to pro bono work, so it’s important that we make count the pro bono opportunities that we are able to take.

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Leaving “BigLaw” should not mean leaving pro bono


By Sarah Luppen

“BigLaw” gets a bad rap: And, on a lot of points, “BigLaw” deserves it—doc review is real; all-nighters happen regularly; partners yell at you for comma misplacement; etc. But one thing big firms get right, is pro bono. They have pro bono directors and pro bono committees. They handle pro bono adoptions en masse every summer. They dedicate paralegal and secretarial staff to pro bono matters. They encourage young associates to take on pro bono assignments to get substantive experience. Big firms are dedicated to doing pro bono work, and they provide the support to make that work possible.

Pro-Bono-Pitch-200px-whiteI spent almost five years at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett— ranked 7 in the Vault Law 100, Simpson has over 850 lawyers and offices around the world. I did more than my fair share of doc review there, but I also got incredible experience doing pro bono work: my first (and second, third, and fourth) depositions, my first federal summary judgment motion, my first mediation brief, and my first settlement negotiation all came out of pro bono matters that Simpson supported.

In January of this year, I left Simpson to join Harder Mirell & Abrams, a brand new entertainment litigation firm with a staff of ten—partners, associates, paralegals, and support staff included. I love my new job. We work really hard on interesting intellectual property and First Amendment cases, and we have fun and mostly get home for dinner. In order to provide high quality legal work and maintain a “work-life balance,” however, we have to allocate our resources efficiently. Taking on a pro bono litigation matter of the type that I worked on at Simpson would be difficult if not impossible.

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‘Justice, justice shall you pursue': Voices from Public Counsel’s 2013 Pro Bono Awards

Public Counsel’s Pro Bono Awards recognize amazing people who work for justice for everyone. This year’s honorees have helped veterans, children with disabilities, immigrants fleeing persecution, and many others. Hear in their own words what fighting for justice means to them. Click here to read more about them.

‘ “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Public Counsel allows me to use my appellate expertise to do just that. I’ve been privileged to help individuals struggling to vindicate their rights on appeal.’

Alana has worked with Public Counsel’s Appellate Law Program since 2007

‘The veterans I’ve helped have all been grateful, appreciative and almost seem to take a certain amount of pride in knowing that they have a lawyer with them in court, speaking on their behalf.’
-Honorable Paul Enright, Retired

Retired Superior Court Commissioner Paul Enright brings more than 30 years experience in the criminal justice system to his work representing veterans in court.

‘It is extremely rewarding to partner volunteer lawyers who are members of our Temple with Public Counsel’s identified clients who are in great need of assistance in securing what they need to succeed in school. As a community we cannot sit back and do nothing while so many children are failed by their public schools.’
-Jeremy Rosen, HORVITZ & LEVY LLP

Stephen S. Wise Temple members Jeremy Rosen, Rabbi Ron Stern, and Chet Kronenberg launched a pro bono program to assist children with disabilities, and more than 20 Temple members have participated. Because of them, an 8-year-old boy diagnosed with a serious mental disorder will finally get the help he needs at school, and our schools are better places for children with disabilities to learn and grow.

“It has been such a blessing to work with the Immigrant Rights Project over many years in representing immigrants in asylum and removal proceedings. Many of those referred by Public Counsel have endured unspeakable violence in their countries of origin. Their stories are always both horrifying and heart-wrenching, yet these clients are full of inspiring strength and perseverance. Helping them to rebuild their lives in this country has been among the most rewarding work that I have done.”
-Peter Perkowski, WINSTON & STRAWN LLP

Peter has represented five immigrants fleeing persecution because of their political views or sexual orientation. Because of him, a Colombian woman who was persecuted because of her husband’s political activities can rest easy knowing she is safe from torture and arrest.

Public Counsel’s 2013 Pro Bono Awards are held July 24 in Los Angeles.

Creating a city for all

Editor’s note: Public Counsel represented Chinatown and Lincoln Heights students, seniors and families to preserve affordable housing in this rapidly developing area through the Cornfield-Arroyo Specific Plan. The City Council passed the plan on June 28, and it is a vision for a cleaner, greener, affordable city. This was originally published on the Southeast Asian Community Alliance blog. Click here to read more about this at Go Public.

Sissy Trinh - Southeast Asian Community AllianceBy Sissy Trinh

Three years ago, SEACA embarked upon the impossible campaign. A campaign where we had no prior knowledge, relationships, or experience. But we did it because our group of teenagers insisted that we had to.And today we won!

Today, the Los Angeles City Council voted to pass the Cornfields Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP).

CASP is a blueprint for what Chinatown and Lincoln Heights will look like in the next 25 years. It will set standards and determine the types of buildings and public spaces will be constructed, but more importantly it is now a blueprint for the what sort of community we want.

The original vision of CASP was to serve as a model for moving LA away from 1950s style suburban sprawl to a City Planning model that is more sustainable, public transit focused, and with some of the strongest environmental protections in the City (it’s also the nation’s first LEED certified Neighborhood Plan).

And thanks to the work of SEACA and our attorneys at Public Counsel, CASP is now ALSO:

  • The FIRST plan in the City that pro-actively deals with the issue of gentrification and the displacement of low-income communties by creating incentives for developers to provide affordable housing in market rate developments;
  • The FIRST policy in the City that specifically addresses the needs of extremely low-income families;
  • Removes all parking minimums and maximums;
  • AND is a plan that has garnered the support of for-profit developers, affordable housing advocates, organized labor, environmentalists, and of course, our group of youth from Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, and Solano Canyon.

Today, the Los Angeles City Council voted to build a stronger, more equitable local community. And all of this happened because a group of high school students convinced me, in spite of my concerns about our lack of expertise in the issue, that their communities deserved better and then made a commitment to me and the community at large to learning about City planning and City politics in order to create a REAL vision for community change.

Special thanks to Councilmember Ed Reyes and his staff as well as Claire Bowin from the Los Angeles Department of City Planning for having the vision to create this plan and to Public Counsel for being our campaign partner.

Sissy Trinh is the founder and executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, which builds power among Southeast Asian youth and their communities in Los Angeles for a more just and equitable society through intergenerational, multiethnic dialogue, leadership development, and community organizing.

Homeless Court Means a New Beginning

By Sandra Madera

The judge wore a black robe. The men and women all faced him with their pro bono attorneys in front of the official seal of the Los Angeles Superior Court. But this was no ordinary court session.

The more than 40 individuals and a dozen pro bono attorneys at People Assisting the Homeless on May 16 were all part of the Los Angeles County Homeless Court Program, which holds court sessions several times a year. The Program is designed to help individuals who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless by clearing up traffic tickets and minor “quality of life” offenses and the warrants that arise from not resolving them. The purpose of Homeless Court is to eliminate this legal, and often financial, barrier for individuals who are working towards stability and self- sufficiency. Public Counsel administers Homeless Court in partnership with the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors/County Chief Executive Office, Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, and other public agencies and advocates for homeless individuals.

Small-time tickets can lead to big-time problems. One participant, who we will refer to as “Jessica,” accumulated five tickets which were preventing her from obtaining a license to be a foster mother in Los Angeles. She was anxious to keep a family of three siblings together because both of their parents are incarcerated. Together with her case manager, she attended Homeless Court session in search of assistance. Judge Greg Dohi declared that it would be a crime if he didn’t forgive her past transgressions because Jessica will be doing so much good by providing a stable home for these children.

“We do this so we can hear your stories and draw strength from them,” Judge Dohi told the packed room.

Several people shared that they could not work or advance in their careers without the help of Homeless Court to clear their warrants so they could have their drivers licenses reinstated: nurses, truck drivers, even a fashion designer.

One of the most moving stories came from a gentleman, who we will refer to as “Robert;” he told the court he had been homeless for 17 years. He lived in the shadows, and he had wanted to remain there and didn’t bother anyone. His ticket stemmed from a single fare evasion ticket; he would roam from Metro station to Metro station collecting cans to recycle for money. The man acknowledged that he was grateful for the ticket – it was the catalyst that helped him to ultimately receive case management, substance abuse support, and mental health treatment from the VA Domiciliary. He has maintained his sobriety since 2006, made friends, secured a job, has stable housing, and now no longer wants to live in the shadows. He shared that he felt as if a switch had flipped and he has a life again.

Most of the pro bono attorneys who attended this session of Homeless Court had never participated before. The group of attorneys was mostly made up of members of Public Counsel’s Board of Directors, and Public Counsel’s Associate Leadership Board – including Board Chair Robert Scoular of Dentons and Philip Cook of Jones Day.

Sirena Castillo, a Manatt associate who serves on the Associate Leadership Board, said, “This was such a wonderful event and I was so honored to be part of it. We would love to get more Manatt attorneys involved during the next Homeless Court.” Another Associate Leadership Board member, Ernesto Velázquez of O’Melveny & Myers, had heard about Homeless Court, and was glad he made the decision to volunteer. He said the experience was so rewarding, he wished he had participated sooner.

To see pictures of this Homeless Court session, please click here.

We would like to thank the following attorneys who participated in representing clients during this Homeless Court Session:

Kristen Terranova, Arnold Porter
Ying Chen, Chen Yoshimura
Robert Scoular, Dentons
Neil O’Hanlon, Hogan Lovells
Phil Cook, Jones Day
Randall Jackson, Kendall Brill & Klieger
Sirena Castillo, Manatt
David Schrader, Morgan Lewis
Ernesto Velázquez, O’Melveny and Myers
Michael Finnegan, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman
Matt Brady, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman
Ashley Sim, Public Counsel
Christine Neuharth, Reed Smith

Sandra Madera is communications and pro bono coordinator at Public Counsel.

My ‘unexpected experience’ in preventing homelessness

Public Counsel summer law clerks come from across the U.S. to help people in need.

Public Counsel summer law clerks come from across the U.S. to help people in need.

Crystal-Wammack-summer-clerkBy Crystal Wammack

Working with Public Counsel has been an aspiration of mine for two years now. About a week before my internship began with a different Public Counsel project, I was offered a position on the Homelessness Prevention Law Project. I was thrilled, and took it immediately. I did not know very much about the project, only what I learned from reading the web site. It did not do the Homelessness Prevention Law Project justice.

We hit the ground running on Tuesday and I was in the field at a local Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) office on Thursday! It took me a couple of days to understand exactly what I was in for. I quickly realized I might have been the luckiest intern at Public Counsel to be invited to join such an extraordinary project. While other law clerks are sitting at their desks working on projects, I am at a DPSS office helping clients receive or maintain their benefits (mainly General Relief and CalFresh). When I go home at night I am full of energy and excited to begin the next day. I am so happy to have found an internship that allows me to get practical experience by helping the people who need it the most.

There is nothing more rewarding than helping a man going through homelessness to receive hotel vouchers that are rightfully his, or informing a couple, who properly mailed their QR-7 form to the DPSS office and their benefits were still terminated because of an administrative error, that they are entitled to back benefits. This is such fulfilling work. I expected to be helping people this summer, but I never imagined how much I, a student with one year of law school experience, could help the community.

Crystal Wammack is one of 37 students currently participating in Public Counsel’s Summer Clerk Program. She is enrolled at Santa Clara University School of Law, class of 2015, and received her Bachelor of Arts degree from UCLA. Click here to learn more about our Summer Clerk Program.