Largely Self-Sustaining, This Tenants' Rights Shop Has a Lean Fundraising Model

Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies has recently determined that Los Angeles is now the least affordable rental market in the country. A May 2015 survey found 44,359 homeless in L.A. County, a 12 percent increase since the last count in 2013.

In 2003, sensing a need to help low-income people stay in their homes, attorney Elena Popp, along with her spouse, Ridge Gonzalez, established the Eviction Defense Network, to defend the right to affordable housing and grant access to justice in housing matters for tenants. “We were both working at Legal Aid [of Los Angeles] at the time and were frustrated that we were turning away 98 out of 100 evictions,” Executive Director Popp told Inside Philanthropy. They put their own money into the project until it became “fairly self-sufficient. We started off with one receptionist, one lawyer, one paralegal, and now we are a staff of 21, 11 of whom are lawyers.”

Legal Aidwhich receives both public and private fundingrepresents clients pro bono. In contrast, the Eviction Defense network works on a “low bono” basis, charging clients on a sliding scale, taking a percentage of any settlement if there is any. But it also raises some money from charitable donations in order to operate. 

Regarding the low-bono model, Popp said, “There had been initial resistance from legal services and organizers because it was a foreign idea, a paradigm shift to charge poor people for services, even though our fees, in most cases, come from saved rent. Most clients want to relocate; most cases settle, so we negotiate time to move and forgiveness of some if not all of the rent and we build our fees into the negotiation. The below-market rate, rent-controlled or subsidized units are the ones we go to trial on, the ones we fight like hell to keep, because those are the units that can’t be replaced for that family. If we lose that unit, it goes to market rent, and we’ve lost an affordable unit. In those cases, we charge less and offer a payment plan.” 

The sliding-scale model of payment to a nonprofit seems well suited to those that offer professional services like Santa Monica’s Westside Family Health Center, because the method allows an organization to help more people.

“Theoretically the fees from clients should support the entire operation, if we average $700 per case,” Popp said, but EDN can’t always charge tenants that much. Annually, the Eviction Defense Network counsels about 5,000 households, and represents up to 2,100 households in court. EDN doesn’t turn people away when they can’t pay their fees up front, but when it comes to budgeting, the law firm operates from month to month. “We do an annual event to fill the gap between what tenants pay us in sliding fees and what our budget actually is.” Three challenging months this year produced a higher-than-usual defecit. “To meet our budget, we’ll have to raise about $60,000 this year.”

The Eviction Defense Network Annual 2015 Gala will be held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Los Angeles Downtown next month. It’s a dinner dance with an artist’s marketplace. Although admission begins at $75, Popp realizes that recognition also sells. Being acknowledged as a "Friend of EDN" doubles that tab; for recognition as an "Advocate of Justice," the ticket costs $250. "Leaders of Justice" pay $500 for 2 tickets, while "Champions of Justice" pay $1000 for a package of four tickets. During the depths of the housing crisis in 2009, EDN got a grant from the California Community Foundation, but has turned to its annual fundraiser as a consistent source of back-up funding ever since.

There’s a reason that Popp is passionate about fighting evictions. After her father left her mom with three children in Mexico, Popp’s mother sold what she could and moved to the U.S. When the money ran out, the family was evicted. Popp was no more than 10. “I remember vividly the marshal at the door and not a lot of kindness in putting us out on the street. It’s an image that made an impression,” Popp said. They moved into a shack with conditions so humiliating that when she got a ride home from school, Popp used to pretend she lived across the street. She lived there until she was 18, and went away to both college and law school at UCLA.

Popp is convinced that 98 percent of the legal needs of poor people are unmet. “It is essential that as a society, if we’re going to talk about equality and justice, that everyone that goes to court is on an even playing field. The Eviction Defense Network is trying to develop a model that will close that access-to-justice gap. Our intervention in Los Angeles has already moved that gap from a little above 98 percent to 80 percent without any government subsidy, with very little foundation subsidy, and just about $50,000 a year in private donations. To a large degree, we’re self-supporting, and it’s a model that should be supported.”