On Managing the Fight Against Poverty
By Axel Stanovky
Ollie Ehlinger Esq. is a manging attorney at Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC), a non-profit providing free legal services to help the poor. I talked with Ehlinger about his work, and the intersection between law and poverty in our society.
As I understand it, LSNC primarily works to provide free services to tenants who need legal help. Tell me more about the scope of your organization.
We do much more than that, it just happens to be that housing is our largest practice area because that is a problem most people have, but we do public benefits, educational rights, veterans work, consumer work, criminal records remedies, foreclosure prevention; its just that a plurality of our cases are landlord tenant.
How would you describe the broader vision of LSNC?
It’s to act as an anti-poverty organization, to help people with legal problems that might be keeping them in poverty and to assist them and educate them so that they can take more control and advocate for themselves. So that’s, I suppose, the founding aspirations of our group.
There is a federal pot of money that is for civil legal services for the poor. When our organization started in the 60s we bid for that pot in Sacramento County and then we’ve been expanding into new counties ever since.
Before there was federal money involved, this work was done either pro-bono or there were one or two non-profits across the country. The federal money [that came] with the war on poverty made sure there was an office in every county.
Congress passed legislation creating the legal services corporations which give money to corporations like ours, to help do civil legal aid. It helps grow that model or disseminate that model because it was only being done in those few cities, and it was part of Linden B Johnson’s War on Poverty.
So, it sounds like a majority of your funding comes from the federal government. Is your work in jeopardy with the most recent election, and Trump’s impending presidency?
Sure, there are kinds of ebbs and flows in how popular legal aid is among the political class. When Reagan was president he cut legal aid funding and increased the restrictions, so it reduced the types of cases we could do. Then, when Newt Gingrich took control as Speaker of the House, he did the same thing again. Ever so slightly, these restrictions and funding cuts have been relaxed over the last eight years, so there is definitely that concern. But there is no indication that President Trump is even aware that there is a program such as this that even exists, because, you know, it’s a drop in the bucket of the federal budget. We don’t take up that much money, so it’s sort of a line item that people go back and forth about. That being said, if there is no veto threat at the presidential level, it certainly is a risk that we would lose our federal funding, but we have many other sources of funding, and we’d survive one way or another.
How great of an impact do you feel that your organization and others in the legal services field are able to make on poverty?
Oooh. I think that’s a pretty interesting question and one that gets to some of the decisions we make about the work we do, because, you know, we could just open up our door and just say “We’ll help people with a legal problem,” and we’d be packed and we’d be full and we’d never have any time to do anything else. Or we could start looking for, instead of one individual with a problem, we could start looking for one bad landlord that has a problem, or one bad government agency, or one bad housing authority, and in one case make a difference for 30 people or 50 people or a hundred people. So, that’s a very tangible and practical problem we face monthly in how much time we spend taking in new clients and how much time we try to spend finding impactful litigation. To me, thinking about how much impact we have: poverty is structural, it’s institutional, it’s even in a sense tribal. As long as there is a scarcity of something, some people will drift to the bottom and some people will drift to the top, so it will never be solved, it will never be impacted in a way to minimize it. In some ways, I think that just treading water, just being out there to help one person on one day with one problem. There’s meaning in that, right? That means that we are part of the system that kicks back and tries to help re-equalize.
In one sense we try to help one client and that’s one part of the system and in another sense we try to take on these bigger impact cases. We’ve done much bigger work and effected much bigger change. Take a case that I worked on: There is an odd overlay when you can take food stamps if you are on federal social security, and the general rule is that when you get federal money you aren’t allowed to take food stamps. We found some instances where we thought the way the states were using food stamps was against the federal social security regulations, so we went to court and got a federal regulation overturned and now about a thousand people across California, who essentially have no money, can now get food stamps and get something to eat. That’s a tangible difference that we made for a discrete number of people. So, in some sense we can quantify it, such as in that instance, that’s a drop in the bucket, and in another sense we can’t quantify it, but it’s important just to be there. So, I think what impact do we make?
I think that we are:
A- Empowering people to do their own work, and
B- Reminding people that there is still work to be done. And perhaps that’s the biggest impact.
People have called this the second gilded age. Income disparities in our countries are the largest they have ever been. So the fight against poverty is more important now than ever, but it sounds like you guys are maybe behind on funding and fighting fires. What could be done? You deal with poverty on a daily basis, do you have insight into what is systematically wrong?
Guys like you and me, even as late as the 80’s, but in the 60’s and 70’s our one salary would be enough to buy a house, right? But now it’s not quite as much. With new debt, student debt, and housing prices, pricing us out, the idea is that the value of our work isn’t enough to make the living that our parents used to make. If you take that down to people in poverty, social security has money for people who are essentially unemployable, (SSI). Supplemental Security Income, and it’s very difficult to get. You get it if you just can’t work a job, and that money is $881 a month right now, and that’s been increased ever so slightly, about 1% every five years, but back in the 70s and 80’s a mid-level professional salary was enough to buy a nice home, and SSI was enough to rent a room in a residential facility. It’s just not that much anymore. It’s priced out. And that’s why you see homelessness increasing and that’s why you see more pressure on multi-generational families, families housed within the same unit.
I think that a very practical thing that can be done to make an impact is make housing cheaper. That doesn’t mean everyone has to live in a beautiful condo overlooking the bay but there’s just not affordable places for people to live. And you know that’s not just the guy on SSI, but the mom working two part-time, low-wage jobs. That’s not enough for her to rent, right?
Yeah, not even close in the Bay Area.
Precisely so we’ve got to find more funding sources to support people to find stable housing. That’s one thing that can be done, and the one thing that can combat the sort of larger cyclical trend that prices are increasing and the value of people’s work is decreasing.
There were a few items on the ballot in the Bay that looked like some impactful affordable housing initiatives that were passed in this last election, do you have a sense for what scope of change those will bring?
I think it’s minor. I think everything in California is sort of trying to fill the void of redevelopment money. Redevelopment was essentially where if jurisdictions were to pour money into a building in economically depressed areas, like city centers, some of that money would be matched by state tax money. That was dissolved in 2011, I think, or 2010, and then upheld by the California Supreme court so all these local initiatives are trying to fill the void, trying to find a local fund of money to subsidize. You know, you build an apartment building and you apply some sort of credit to it so that an apartment that cost $1500 only costs $500 per month, right, but you’ve got to have that money there so that the developer will build it without getting the profit that they expected.
To the extent that the local jurisdictions are doing it and to the extent that the local voters are willing to put money behind it, I think that’s where the change is going to come, because it’s not going to come at the state level. So, they are probably not sufficient now but that’s probably the wave, that’s probably where we are going to make the change and make communities such that all levels of people who contribute to the community can live there with the local jurisdiction pitching in and local citizens saying “Yeah sure, bump up my taxes, it means that much to me.”
It sounds from your description that it might sort of slow down development at the same time that it might creates space for affordable development.
Sure, I think that’s another tension in the community. Something’s slowing down the supply of housing and that’s affecting the price of it right now. We have pretty strong regulatory protections in California. You know we have CEQA, the California Quality Control Act, so things can’t get built without going through this process, and to some extent it has been a great success. If you look at how fragile California environments are, you know people live packed into these small canyons, right? The Bay Area is this big old crater canyon, and so there’s not a lot of room. Being smart about how you do development has certainly protected our environment, so you know these are competing interests.
I will say that I think people in general are against high density building, but I think that might be the way to go and a lot of development schemes have bonuses for high density. You get a tax break for building high density and that’s probably just the way we’re going to have to do simply by the land constraints we have here in California.
Wow, I appreciate your perspectives on that, because you know, it’s on a lot of people’s minds in the bay area. On a more personal note, in your life, what has prepared you to take this important role in the fight against poverty.
Oh shoot! I don’t know about all that. I think I am pretty fortunate about timing. I really think less of my life experience, its just the five years I spent working at Legal Services. I worked in many different offices, in many different programs and I got to see many different leadership and management styles. That helped sculpt me into a better attorney, and probably a better manager. And then, I like to get outside. I like to go for a run, go explore all of, you know, enjoy the vastness and beauty of nature. You tire yourself out and that’s the perfect compliment to working hard on people’s stressful issues. You step out of the office, and you’re done with you’re day, and you have to use the rest of your time to refresh yourself.
So that’s how you are able to deal with the stresses of the job?
Oh. I mean I’m able to deal with it, because my life is fine. I work with people who deal with stresses and issues that I can’t even imagine. So, keeping that perspective is helpful. My life is fine, not through my hard work or my amazing effort, but through a lot of dumb luck to some extent. Keeping that in mind makes it pretty easy to relax and step away from these things. Do what you can and then take a break and then go back in there and do what you can again.