Double Funding for Bet Tzedek Legal Services for Tenants!

Housing rights legal services provider Bet Tzedek starts the new fiscal year with a 100% bump-up in funding to provide more extensive tenant and senior housing legal services to Beverly Hills residents. Great news because eviction actions are on the rise. But the funding almost didn’t happen when City Council balked at spending $220,000. Cedars Sinai stepped in to save the day with a one-time matching grant.

Bet Tzedek had been providing legal services to Beverly Hills seniors for years under a $50,000 city grant. In 2017 tenants asked for help with legal services too. City Council generously awarded another $60,000 from the city’s Community Assistance Grant Fund program to make a total award of $110,000 – a significant commitment to helping low-income and senior tenants remain housed. That was the funding in the prior two fiscal years (July through June).

As Bet Tzedek attorney Cynthia Chagolla told our Human Relations Commission in June, “Our first priority is to keep a family housed.” Bet Tzedek also partners with City of West Hollywood on tenant legal services and operates a program to prevent homelessness backed by Measure H funds. Seniors without a support or social network are especially vulnerable to homelessness and related complications, she said as she recounted the story of a Beverly Hills tenant aged over 80 who was served with an eviction notice.

(The reason for the eviction? Failure to remove dog waste from the lawn. “It’s serious but we had to ask, Is it a small dog?” Chagolla told the commissioners. “Yes it is – a Chihuahua! But it is symbolic of an uptick in frivolous evictions and frivolous lawsuits against tenants.” Watch the meeting video.)

The request for additional funding is driven by increased demand for tenant legal services relating primarily to an uptick in eviction cases. With 50 eviction cases pending this year, at a cost of $2,500 to $5,000 per case, the Bet Tzedek funding at the current $110,000 level would run dry early. The bump-up would provide the organization with $220,000 for both senior legal services and housing rights legal services (the latter program directly benefits low-income tenants specifically).

However Bet Tzedek’s request to City Council for $220,000 was sidelined. With the city prepared to continue funding at the $111,000 level it was up to Cedars Sinai Medical Center to step up with a one-time grant of $110,000 to Bet Tzedek to continue legal services. In fact the Cedars grant specifies $90k of that support to go to tenant legal services.

How did it come to be that a local hospital had to save the day? Let’s look at the grant-making process. And it is a process!

What is the Community Assistance Grant Fund?

Beverly Hills puts a premium on human services. The city employs a full-time administrator and two full-time specialists to provide “safety net services to vulnerable or underserved members of the community.” The city’s support for Rodeo Drive and numerous city events gets the gloss, but in the background real money is spent to deliver social services – about a million bucks per year.

A key part of social services is the contracting of nonprofits through the Community Assistance Grant Fund (CAGF). And the city has been increasingly generous with that support.

CAGF funding chart
Community Assistance Grant Fund support for social services nonprofits has been on the increase! (Chart taken from the City of Beverly Hills Community Services Department Strategic Plan 2019-2022.)

Before the money ever makes it to a grantee, though, the it has to pass muster with the Human Relations Commission. The city only funds 501(c)(3) nonprofits; no political activity is allowed under that designation.

The first step is to screen grant applicants and it is laborious and time-consuming for the Human Relations commissioners. From the review of initial requests for proposals in November to presentation of requests to City Council in May, it is a six-month process involving many meetings.

Second, Human Relations commissioners and city staff work with potential grantees to hone their requests while each applicant’s financials are reviewed by the Charitable Solicitations Commission. How long have they been operating? What percentage of their income goes to services rather than administration? All grantees are carefully vetted. This is no free-money giveaway.

Third is the key step: a ‘liaison’ meeting is convened to do a first-pass review of applications. There two designated councilmembers confer with Human Relations Commission representatives and Charitable Solicitations Commission representatives to talk about the programs and numbers. This year the Council liaison’s were former Mayor Julian Gold and Councilmember Lili Bosse (the tenant’s key voice on the Council).

These councilmember liaisons have much influence over grant funding: if they agree to move the recommendation forward then it goes to Council; but if there is disagreement then a recommendation may not go forward. Or if it goes forward it will have an asterisk. It takes just one of the councilmember-liaisons to ‘bigfoot’ the grant application. Each year the city denies some applications or pares funding in some cases.

Finally the grant applications go to City Council. The numbers may be tweaked but generally the councilmembers hew to the liaison recommendations and the Human Relations Commission recommendations.

City Council Balks on Double the Funding

Now, in prior years Bet Tzedek had sailed through the grant review process. The organization is a well-regarded, efficient operation. It does extensive work on behalf of tenants here, in West Hollywood and beyond. But this year the funding got hung up in the liaison meeting when one of the councilmembers questioned expenditures. The recommendation didn’t move forward.

Earlier the Human Relations commission had unanimously agreed to recommend that Bet Tzedek be funded with a bump-up of $110,000 in addition to the existing contract of $110,000 to make a total of $220,000 for the 2019–20 fiscal year.

The recommendation for greater funding was due to heavy demand among low-income and senior tenants for legal services and specifically to fight eviction notices and the next step: the unlawful detainer filed with the court. “The average defense for an unlawful detainer is $2,500 to $5,000 and so far this year we’ve had fifty cases,” James Latta, Human Services administrator, told the commission. “That’s $125k already, which is more than the entire grant last year.”

However a doubling of funding is rate for the Community Assistance Grant Fund. Adding to the challenge, neither the Human Relations commissioners, nor the Bet Tzedek CEO and President Jessie Kornberg, who spoke before City Council, were able to effectively argue the case for the money.

The hour was late and time was short but CEO Kornberg made an impression with her one-minute presentation (Scroll down for the video.)

In the end Council didn’t fund the organization at $220,000 and held off funding at all. Councilmember Gold, one of the two liaison members, praised the commissioners for hard work and noted the “mostly worthy requests.” He said the liaison members had “a couple of questions” about funding amounts and Council ultimately awarded grants without the grant to Bet Tzedek.

A month later there was still disbelief and frustration among all Human Relations commissioners at Council’s inaction. Chairperson Annette Saleh lamented that there was no time to make an argument for the added funding. “If we had more time maybe…but we were asked by the Mayor to move it along.” Commissioner Ari Blumenfeld agreed. “Our commissioners’ hands were tied that night. We had the [caseload] data prepared but we didn’t have time to present it.”

Commissioner Sonia Berman said, “After all the hours of our time it was disappointing and disrespectful. I think that’s how we all feel.” She suggested the commissioners go on record as feeling “demeaned” at the short-shrift at Council meting. “We were a victim of time — and that should not be the reason [the funding was denied].”

Sonia Berman, Human Relations commissioner
Human Relations Commission member Sonia Berman: “City Council was disrespectful of our time.”

Chairperson Saleh, who is a consistent pro-tenant voice on the commission, pointed directly to the problem.

We worked hard on this, we recommended this…In fact, and I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, at our [liaison] meeting one of the city council members was ready to approve our recommendation but one of them asked for specifics — like “I can’t approve that unless you tell me how much each case cost” and so forth.

Human Relations Commission chairperson Annette Saleh
Human Relations Commission chairperson Annette Saleh

Council’s hesitation sent the Human Services staff looking for money somewhere. Cedars Sinai Medical Center agreed to supplement the city’s support for Bet Tzedek with a $110,000 grant to make the total $220,000 for housing rights and senior legal services. (Read the agreement.) City Council then unceremoniously ponied up the $110,000 CAGF funding at its July 16th Council meeting.

In recognition of saving the day, the Humans Relation Commission agreed to incorporate Cedars Sinai into the kindness report presented to the mayor — a reminder perhaps that Council did not step up with the needed money. “It’s a one-time gift,” Latta said, “but we need to get Council’s support next year.”

Our Take

Tenants should recall that City Council stepped up with the first $60,000 grant for means-tested tenants rights legal services two years ago simply because we asked. We attended the Council-commissions liaison meeting in 2017 where Councilmember Bosse and then-Councilmember Kathy Reims signed off on it pronto. No questions asked. That was a real sign of commitment to rent stabilization. It also put a much-needed thumb on the scale for the tenants. (Landlords opposed that grant but got involved too late to have any effect.)

The double-funding ask this year was a big gulp to swallow without the case expense data that would make it a slam dunk. Human Relations Commission members talked in June about how to avoid that outcome next time because it is clear there is much need for tenant legal services as eviction attempts are on the increase.

A few interesting points also came out of the commission discussion:

  • Bet Tzedek supervising attorney Cynthia Chagolla said that when an eviction notice is issued sometimes both the tenant and landlord call Bet Tzedek for assistance. But if the tenant calls first, then the organization is precluded from providing service to the landlord. The lesson: any tenant should call Bet Tzedek at (323) 939–0506 x499 at the first sign of an eviction attempt. (Be sure to use the extension when calling.)
  • Landlords can use the Bet Tzedek service if they are residents of the city, but many don’t, the attorney said, because they are reluctant to provide their financials for the means-tested program. That mirrors the landlords’ reluctance to provide any financial information to support some of the poorhouse claims they’ve made to City Council.
  • The Rent Stabilization Program office is working closely with Bet Tzedek and requested help with Farsi-speaking callers. Today Bet Tzedek has someone who is fluent in Farsi and is looking to hire a full-time Farsi-speaking attorney. (Senior Farsi-speakers are especially vulnerable to harassment even by Farsi-speaking landlords!)

We are gratified that Cedars stepped up to supplement city support for Bet Tzedek legal services to Beverly Hills seniors and residents who rent. And we are happy that legal services is reaching those who need it. Have you had any experience with Bet Tzedek? Get in touch and let us know.

Jessie Kornberg, Bet Tzedek President and CEO
Jessie Kornberg, Bet Tzedek President and CEO, shares an affecting story of helping a Beverly Hills tenant with multiple issues. “We spent probably 100 hours on that tenant and even met her at her workplace on her breaks.” Click to watch the video.