California’s Rural Housing Crisis: The Access to Justice Implications
Part III of CalATJ’s Rural Justice Policy Paper Series, 2019
46 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2020 Last revised: 14 Apr 2020
Date Written: December 1, 2019
This policy paper is part of a series that seeks to illuminate the socio-legal and geographic contours to the access to justice crisis in rural California. We also seek to outline possible solutions. This paper focuses on the intersection of California’s rural housing crisis and access to legal services, legal information, and — ultimately — just outcomes.
California's Housing Crisis. That California’s cities are facing a housing crisis marked by gentrification and displacement of low-income residents is widely understood. Less familiar is a parallel and interconnected crisis in rural parts of the Golden State. From high rates of eviction and foreclosure to low rates of habitability, the housing crisis is undermining the well-being of rural Californians. Not only is housing in rural California scarce and increasingly expensive, wildfires are aggravating the situation by destroying housing stock. As in urban areas, rural homelessness is on the rise.
In California as a whole, a minimum wage worker would need to work 119 hours per week — the equivalent of three full-time jobs — to afford the rental cost of a two-bedroom apartment.
In rural California, 36 percent of households are cost-burdened (meaning they spend upwards of 30 percent of their income on housing); almost a third are severely cost-burdened (spending more than half of their income on housing).
Access to Justice. Access to justice can, in a practical sense, mean access to an attorney, legal advice, or simple assistance in filling out forms. Above all, access to justice means the removal of barriers to the resources necessary to at least pursue a legally just outcome. The problem, however, is that too few attorneys — including legal aid attorneys — are located in rural areas of California to provide services to all eligible low-income residents. This phenomenon — “attorney deserts” — means that those in rural parts of the state often cannot receive the legal help or advice they need. This exacerbates the housing crisis by preventing Californians from getting assistance that could help them retain ownership of their house, stay in their rental unit, or enforce habitability laws against their landlord. Access to justice, therefore, also means access to clean, safe, and affordable housing.
• 60 percent of low-income Californians face at least one civil legal issue in a year, and 23 percent face six or more
• In California, 22 percent of cases closed by legal aid attorneys in 2017 dealt with housing, more than for any other legal need
• Nationally, 90 percent of landlords have counsel, while just 10 percent of tenants do
• On average, more than 160,000 Californians face eviction lawsuits annually, but more than a million are involuntarily displaced regardless of whether the lawsuit is actually filed
• Fresno County saw a rent increase of 22 percent from 2000 to 2015, while at the same time median renter income decreased by 8 percent
• The six counties with the least habitable housing are rural counties, including Lake and Del Norte
Recommendations. Our recommendations are two-fold. First, statewide and local laws that protect low-income renters and homeowners should be codified. These are the laws that legal aid and other attorneys work to enforce on behalf of their clients, ensuring that the objectives of the laws come to fruition. Second, legal aid should be funded robustly in order to fight the housing crisis, including in rural California. Rural legal aid providers need more resources to help residents fight unjust evictions and foreclosures, and the need for legal aid is especially acute in the wake of disasters. Ultimately, statewide renter and homeowner protections and access to legal services must be combined in a comprehensive strategy that both prevents and ameliorates California’s housing crisis in rural and urban areas alike.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation