Bonnie Louisa Ball-Mendoza sits at her dining table in her Daly City apartment on Nov. 23, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.Posted November 25, 2022
Community Legal Services defends tenants in need
East Palo Alto nonprofit offers dignity, hope to clients
by Zoe Morgan / Palo Alto Weekly
Bonnie Louisa Ball-Mendoza was out of work during the pandemic and relying on her Section 8 housing voucher and COVID-19 rent relief funds to help cover her monthly rent. The problem was that her landlord refused to credit the rent relief funds to her account and claimed not to have received some of the Section 8 payments that had gone directly to him.
He was pressuring her to pay him in cash, Ball-Mendoza said. When she asked for an explanation, she said that he kept giving her different reasons.
Seeking a way to move forward, she reached out to Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto on the recommendation of a friend. Although Ball-Mendoza lived on the border of South San Francisco and Daly City with her adult son, Community Legal Services helps individuals throughout the region.
Ball-Mendoza connected with one of the attorneys in the nonprofit's housing program. When her landlord moved to evict her, Community Legal Services helped fight the eviction in court. In the end, the court determined that the landlord actually owed Ball-Mendoza close to $10,000, Community Legal Services Senior Attorney Stacy Townsend said in an email.
"We represented Bonnie in an evidentiary hearing to show that not only did Bonnie not owe her landlord any rent but that he actually owed her thousands of dollars worth of rent credits, adjustments and rebates for failure to provide critical housing services, like a working heater," Townsend said.
Throughout the process, Ball-Mendoza said that she was impressed by how knowledgeable the nonprofit's attorneys were about landlord/tenant issues, as well as by the way that they treated her.
"The way they help you, the way they attend to you and the way they represent you, it gives you dignity," Ball-Mendoza said. "It gives you that sense of dignity, despite what you're going through and how your landlord is treating you."
Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto was a recipient of a $10,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund this past year. The funds have benefited its housing program specifically.
This is the Holiday Fund's 30th year and the goal is to raise $600,000 for local nonprofit agencies. The Palo Alto Weekly and its partner, the nonprofit Silicon Valley Community Foundation, cover all administrative costs, so that the entirety of the donations from community members goes directly to supporting the life-changing work of the agencies.
Community Legal Services was founded by East Palo Alto community members and provides free legal services to clients throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, with a focus on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Its projects include work on housing, immigration and economic advancement.
The housing program alone has six attorneys, three housing paralegals (who also support the economic advancement team) and one intake coordinator, according to Housing Program Managing Attorney Margaret McBride.
"Our primary mission is to prevent displacement of working class families from East Palo Alto and the surrounding areas in San Mateo County," McBride said.
The program does this through a combination of direct legal services, including representing tenants in eviction proceedings and other conflicts with their landlords, as well as working with community groups on policy advocacy to get stronger tenant protections, McBride said.
Through Community Legal Services' daily walk-in hours, people can come in and seek immediate help. That's important, McBride said, because tenants facing eviction often have only three or five days to respond.
The nonprofit helps clients with things like reviewing eviction notices to ensure they are valid and, through partner agencies, providing tenants with rental assistance funds so that they don't lose their home and have time to get back on their feet.
Before the pandemic, Ball-Mendoza had been going to school full time to earn her associate's degree in psychology, while also working as a part-time cashier. When COVID-19 started spreading, she didn't feel safe continuing to work, but continued her classes from home.
Then towards the end of 2020, she caught COVID-19. That turned into a case of long COVID, which refers to the long-term effects that some people experience after being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.
She wasn't able to continue with school or return to work, and her doctor ended up helping her file to receive disability payments.
According to McBride, the pandemic impacted many of the nonprofit's clients, with laws providing protection and support to tenants constantly in flux. The biggest change in 2022, McBride said, was that many remaining COVID-19 tenant protections expired this summer.
"The last half of this year, we've just seen an exponential demand for our services, particularly related to evictions," McBride said.
While many pandemic-era tenant protections are gone, McBride said that many people continue to be impacted by the pandemic, especially those who lost work and are still recovering financially.
That recovery is still in progress for Ball-Mendoza. Her landlord still hasn't given her the money that he owes and she is continuing to pursue getting him to pay. Her health is improving and she is planning to begin working part-time again after Thanksgiving and go back to school in the spring. After receiving her associate's degree, she wants to transfer to San Francisco State to continue studying psychology.
She and her son were able to find a nearby two bedroom apartment where she says that she feels better living. Even though she won her eviction case against her prior landlord, she had no interest in continuing to reside there.
"I just didn't want to stay there anymore," Ball-Mendoza said. "I mean, how can you feel comfortable living in a place like that, living with a landlord like that?"
Despite COVID-19 protections ending, there are state laws that Community Legal Services can help tenants take advantage of. One is the Tenant Protection Act, which took effect in 2020 and caps tenant increases statewide to a maximum of 10% each year.
"That's still significant for a lot of people, but it is so much more manageable than the unlimited amounts they were seeing before," McBride said.
As she reflected back on the help she received, Ball-Mendoza said that Community Legal Services is an amazing resource for the community. Their support gave her hope and security, making her feel like she didn't have to navigate her situation alone.
"This type of help really gives you the confidence, it gives you the strength, to set things right," Ball-Mendoza said.