Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA)
Where can low and moderate income residents across the State of California, including immigrants, go for advice and legal help on a vast array of consumer problems? Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA) is the go-to resource. Headquartered in Oakland, HERA addresses issues ranging from student loan problems, homeowner concerns and automobile loan problems, to miscellaneous fees and fines, payday and auto title loans, credit reporting and identity theft problems.
Maeve Elise Brown, Executive Director and co-founder of HERA, along with HERA’s staff of eight attorneys and one paralegal, serve several thousand individuals annually, and many hundreds more at HERA’s workshops. Unlike most legal services programs that serve only low or very low income residents and have restrictions on whom they can serve based on immigration status, HERA provides free legal services to both low and moderate income community members, and immigration documentation is not a concern. Why does HERA also serve moderate income residents? “Because moderate income community members are just one or two paychecks, or one illness away from losing everything,” says Brown. “How can households become or remain financially stable if they cannot get high quality legal help with financial concerns?” Not only is hiring an attorney unaffordable for many moderate income residents, but the subject areas that HERA covers are ones for which it is not always easy to find expert help.
Among these subject areas are debt collection and student loan matters. Take the story of Edgar, for example. When Edgar graduated from a for-profit college, he expected he would be entering into a profession that paid well enough for him to repay his student loans. He did not know that, within days of graduation, he would experience epileptic seizures so severe that he could not sustain employment. The Department of Education discharged the $25,000 he owed in student loans, but a private loan servicer continued to pursue Edgar vigorously on a separate, $8,000 loan, even though he qualified for a similar waiver based on his severe disability. Rather than providing the appropriate waiver, the loan servicer kept requesting the same medical documentation over and over again, an abusive practice that continued for two years. HERA and its Managing Attorney, Noah Zinner, represented Edgar, secured the waiver of the debt, and put a stop to the loan servicer’s unfair practices against him.
HERA also assists in real estate matters, particularly wrongful or unfair foreclosures. Every day, individuals and families at risk of losing their home turn to HERA for help. Although the volume of foreclosures is down from recent years, the face of the foreclosure problem is changing, and the nature and extent of foreclosure issues in California vary from county to county. For elderly homeowners especially, high property taxes compared to their limited income stream leave them at risk of foreclosure, as do deferred maintenance and other physical problems with the property. In need of financing, such homeowners turn to reverse mortgage lenders, who often end up threatening the family home.
In addition to representation on individual matters, HERA holds many consumer workshops each year. Frequently, workshop attendees become clients. One of HERA’s workshop participants, Rochelle, was homeless and had applied to low-income housing after receiving a Section 8 voucher. She was denied housing because she had too much debt listed on her credit report. HERA offered to help her, so she could qualify for rental housing. After review of the denial letter, Rochelle’s credit report, and the housing authority’s policies, HERA helped Rochelle dispute a significant debt in her credit report and assisted her with an appeal of her denial. The housing authority accepted the appeal and overturned its previous denial. Rochelle is no longer homeless.
Complex litigation for individuals and class action cases are other tools in HERA’s arsenal to address abuses aimed at consumers and homeowners. On its own, or co-counseling with private attorneys, HERA has an excellent track record of achieving relief for clients across a broad spectrum of consumer financial and housing concerns.
If you are a member of the private bar, think about partnering with HERA, and consider HERA when it comes time to determine who may benefit from a cy pres award. Please use HERA as a resource and referral for residents, staff, clients, or family. To get involved, or make a referral, please write to [email protected], and for HERA’s workshop schedule, visit www.heraca.org.