The provision of free legal services is of great benefit to low-income residents of Kitsap County. Timely intervention by volunteer attorneys helps families and individuals preserve their homes, assert consumer rights, obtain protection from violence, and secure income or benefits. Attorneys can quickly identify and resolve legal problems before situations needlessly deteriorate. The programs of Kitsap Legal Services are designed to alleviate some of the harshest effects of the economic downturn and help preempt a costly spiral of social problems. Unlawful evictions have been overturned, job discrimination has been adjudicated, and Chapter 7 bankruptcies have helped seniors and others with extremely high medical bills obtain a fresh start financially.
People in low-income brackets walk an economic tightrope every day—a reality made even shakier by pervasive job loss; housing insecurity; and rising food, health, and energy costs. Fallout from the sub-prime mortgage crisis has resulted in an alarmingly large and rapidly growing number of families who face homelessness. Even reasonably prudent consumers, including many seniors, have been victimized by predatory lending scams and risk losing everything. Increasing numbers of military personnel and their families need legal assistance with various issues. Heightened financial stress results in more families seeking personal safety and protection from domestic violence.
The consequences of poverty go far beyond the short-term hardship for many families. Adverse effects on children include: poor/no health care, low educational attainment, increased risk for arrest/incarceration, and decreased opportunities to thrive overall.
A Success Story
A couple with children had moved to an apartment complex last spring. A few months after moving in, they had to move to a different apartment in the same complex, due to habitability issues. In December, the couple came to KLS for help because of ongoing habitability issues. They had already contacted building code enforcement after attempting to get the landlord to fix things or allow them out of their lease that was not up for four more months. Workers had torn out a wall and put a temporary replacement in. It was twenty five degrees outside and the wind was blowing right into the apartment. The workmen had left when a “stop work order” was issued.
A KLS volunteer advocate contacted the inspector and learned the apartment was being worked on but a stop work order had been issued until an engineer could inspect it and the building would probably be condemned in a few days because of rotten wood and mold in the wall. The volunteer learned that government money was involved in the complex, so the Washington State Housing Finance Commission also had compliance oversight. The Commission was informed and agreed to look into the matter.
Three days before Christmas, the apartment was condemned and this family was forced to leave immediately and move in with the children’s grandmother. The KLS advocate contacted Northwest Justice Project for assistance and learned about a Washington State law that requires a building owner is to provide relocation funds to tenants who are forced to move because of unsafe conditions; in the amount of three times the rent or two thousand dollars (whichever is more) plus any prepaid rent and deposits. The advocate also inquired whether any other clients had contacted NJP regarding issues with the adverse party. The inquiry revealed that several other low-income people living in that complex had contacted NJP in the past with habitability complaints.
The advocate assisted the client in writing a demand letter to the landlord, which included reference to the law, with a copy enclosed. Within two weeks, payment was issued as demanded and the family was able to move into a house of their own.