Oakland’s Neighborhood Law Corps Puts Young Lawyers to Good Work

Oakland is the eighth largest city in California, and more than 125 languages are spoken within its city limits. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oakland is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States. With this great size and diversity come many challenges. Generations of Oakland residents are caught in a cycle of crime and poverty, with little hope for advancement. Low-income neighborhoods are plagued with the chronic problems associated with blighted buildings, crack houses, toxic pollution and slum housing conditions. To make matters worse, corner liquor stores — which are overly concentrated in these neighborhoods — act as magnets for illegal activity.

Predominantly low-income, African-American, Asian and Latino families must endure these horrible conditions caused by blight and crime. Newly immigrated residents are especially affected because they tolerate substandard housing conditions out of fear of deportation. They are not informed of their rights, who to contact for help or how to access the legal system. For many, there is neither the time nor the resources to get through all the redtape of government bureaucracy to seek relief from their circumstances.

Legal Fellowships Create Jobs For Novices

Oakland’s Neighborhood Law Corps (NLC) is part Peace Corps and part legal aid. Created by Oakland City Attorney and League Past President John Russo in February 2002, the program is the first of its kind in the nation. Russo established a nonprofit foundation to pay for the “legal fellowships” of novice lawyers who are committed to public interest law. NLC attorneys are offered two-year fellowships at salaries commensurate to a first-year Oakland public school teacher (currently $40,000, plus benefits).

The NLC attorneys do not represent individuals. Instead they represent the neighborhood as a whole and use the city’s health, safety and welfare powers to drive its legal cases against public nuisances. Community members are encouraged to identify and prioritize problems in their neighborhoods and work with the NLC to create solutions. NLC then leverages all its available resources to achieve the neighborhood’s desired outcome.

The following are examples of NLC successes.

Beacon Gas Station. For almost a decade in East Oakland, this 24-hour gas station/ convenience market was the site of drug trafficking, dangerous exhibition driving (spinning “doughnuts”), excessive noise, underage drinking, after-hours alcohol sales, unsanitary food conditions and public urination. Neighbors, tired of tolerating this hub for illegal and unpleasant activity, placed more than 800 calls to the Oakland Police Department during an 18-month period.

In response to these concerns, NLC attorneys partnered with the Oakland Police Department, the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, the Planning Department and members of the community to compile evidence and bring a case against the market to revoke its liquor license. At the hearing before the Planning Commission eight neighbors testified and a dozen others submitted letters. As a result, the Planning Commission imposed severe restrictions on the property, including a reduction in nighttime operating hours, improved security and lighting, as well as litter and graffiti cleanup. Neighbors have reported drastic improvements in the market’s appearance and overall atmosphere.

McCullough Drug House. For more than 12 years, an Oakland neighborhood was plagued by chronic drug dealing on this residential property. NLC, through persistent efforts at the local, state and national level, ultimately succeeded in forcing the negligent owners to forfeit the property as a permanent solution to the chronic drug dealing. The demolition of the property was witnessed by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Oakland officials and delighted neighbors.

Report Card on Liquor Stores — “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.” In an effort to address problem liquor stores in Oakland, NLC issued a report card titled “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” which assessed the city’s 358 liquor stores. The report outlined a plan of action to address the crime and blight that certain liquor stores tended to foster. The city council unanimously accepted the report and, for the first time in Oakland’s history, the community was able to shut down a chronically troublesome store. Currently, there are 11 stores rated “ugly,” which are being brought into compliance with “good neighbor” standards.

Community Partnership Pledge. In this case, word spread that residents were teaming up with the city to take action against nuisance properties and crime and blight around liquor stores. A grocers’ association representing 300 small markets approached the NLC about facilitating a dialogue with neighbors to improve their relationship with the community. As a result, more than 100 neighborhood grocers volunteered to sign an innovative pledge of “good neighbor” standards, including promises to close by midnight, eliminate the sale of fortified wine, eliminate the sale of drug paraphernalia and attend regular community meetings.

Slumlords Settle With City, More Than 500 Tenants Benefit. Two landlords who owned a combined 130 units refused to make repairs in apartments. Several units under their care were uninhabitable due to broken heaters; plumbing leaks that caused walls, floors and ceilings to deteriorate and collapse; and infestations of mold, rats and cockroaches. NLC threatened to bring a lawsuit against these landlords under the California Unfair Business Practice Law. NLC successfully forced both landowners into settlement agreements, which required the posting of a performance bond to ensure all repairs were made, strict adherence to a compliance plan and payments of fines of more than $100,000 to the city.

A Model Program

Several California cities and counties have expressed interest in duplicating the NLC or adopting some of its methods to enhance already existing code-compliance programs. The good work of NLC has prompted the Alameda County Bar Association to award the City Attorney’s Office with its 2003 Distinguished Law Office Award. Through the Neighborhood Law Corps, the dedication and care of committed individuals and institutions is making a difference in revitalizing Oakland’s communities.

The City of Oakland won the Grand Prize for this project in the Community Services and Economic Development category of the 2005 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

This article appears in the April 2006 issue of Western City
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