Knowing of the need for increased culturally relevant legal services around housing for the Latino and immigrant community of San Francisco, MEDA has launched a new service line within its housing services program: eviction defense legal services. To form and develop the program they recently hired full-time Housing Rights Counsel Aristos Kemiji. This is a critical piece of the nonprofit’s equitable recovery strategy for the Latino and immigrant community of San Francisco, which suffered disproportionate physical and economic effects from the pandemic. The nonprofit’s goal is to offer bilingual dissemination of tenants’ rights information – and even legal defense – following the recent end of the eviction moratorium. This rounds out MEDA’s housing services, which already offer affordable-rental placement, pre-purchase counseling and post-purchase counseling.
In his new role, Aristos looks to reset the relationship between landlords and their tenants, empowering community members via education. He defines success as more residents staying in their home and feeling empowered in their rights as tenants.
MEDA’s Christopher Gil sat down with Aristos to discuss his vision for this scaled work with the community.
CG: Welcome to MEDA, Aristos. My first question is: Why is starting a housing legal services program at MEDA important, especially at this time?
AK: Acknowledging MEDA’s place-based framework as a strong basis to build equity, the organization has built this program to address the conditions that threaten the long-term well-being of Latino residents in the Mission. This has become especially poignant considering how the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened socio-economic disparities that our Latino community members face. Thus MEDA aims to address the wide range of living situations across the housing continuum, from homelessness to homeownership, with legal advocacy attuned to community needs to proactively confront and prevent Latino displacement. By empowering residents with an effective understanding of their housing rights and streamlined access to meaningful resources, MEDA seeks to support tenants, who might potentially be evicted and displaced from the city, to stay in their home long term, rooted in the Mission and San Francisco.
CG: What specific housing challenges did the Latino and immigrant community of San Francisco face during the pandemic?
AK: While the entire San Francisco community faced pandemic-related challenges to housing with rent-debt accumulation, the immigrant community faced particular obstacles that have distinctively affected them. Simply put, the immigrant community in San Francisco is the backbone of the restaurant industry: This commercial aspect trickles down to the residential. Restaurants and bars shut down when the shelter-in-place order began in March 2020, and the immigrant community had to foot the bill as our government had mandated the shutdowns.
When taking into account the multitude of cryptic local, state and national ordinances that have regularly fluctuated over the past two years, troubling misconceptions and confusion have percolated surrounding housing rights and rental assistance resources during and after the eviction moratorium – misconceptions that are compounded by language barriers. Unfortunately, the revolving door of messaging often bewildered community members, and some policies equated to being nothing more than stopgap measures. This phenomenon highlights the growing need to empower our communities with consistent, multilingual communication lines for periodic updates and general education about evolving legislation surrounding housing security.
CG: There is so much need around legal services for housing, especially for the Latino community. On which areas of legal housing services will MEDA initially focus?
AK: In 2022, MEDA has initiated an eviction-defense program as part of the organization’s ongoing expansion of housing services. Taking into account the range of legal issues in the housing continuum that members of the Mission community face, this new venture will be integrated into MEDA’s established rental application and placement portfolio to further our anti-displacement efforts in the neighborhood. MEDA will comprehensively address the spectrum of tenant-landlord disputes of our Mission community. As part of MEDA’s aim to continually educate and empower clients at any and every stage of their living situations, these eviction defense services will be complemented by the ongoing work of the promotoras and Family Success Coaches who initially engage clients to navigate their conflict and provide ombudsman guidance along with valuable resources. It is through this engagement that the promotoras and Family Success Coaches build rapport with our community by regularly sharing pertinent and effective materials to support clients in taking ownership of their housing situations. Through constant collaboration among the interdisciplinary MEDA team, there will be an evolving commitment to not only keep the public apprised of important developments in the San Francisco housing landscape, but also proactively address trends that are pervasive within the Mission community.
CG: How did the pandemic showcase the importance of affordable and stable housing?
AK: At MEDA, we know that “housing is health.” When considering the current importance of affordable housing, the financial impact of the pandemic has had direct ramifications on housing in San Francisco – and the world as a whole. While many have taken the opportunity to thoughtfully reevaluate their living situations during the quarantine, there unfortunately are far too many members of our community who have been forced into making difficult situations due to new socio-economic pressures. We recognize this as a major wealth-stripping event in the Latino and immigrant community of San Francisco.
Additionally, when taking into account the purposeful intent behind the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium, there is a growing awareness on a national level that secure housing is correlated to public health. Ultimately, the last two years have reshaped the public’s perception of affordable and secure housing, primarily in light of economic and societal health concerns that have affected all of us. Think of it this way: Transience is an obstacle to community-building.
CG: What would equitable recovery around housing look like in the Latino and immigrant community of San Francisco?
AK: Reflecting upon how the pandemic has irreversibly shifted the housing dynamic among the Latino community, I envision that equitable recovery will take shape by transforming our collective view on proactive and preventative participation in the tenant-landlord relationship. Now that our city as a whole acknowledges the aftermath of the eviction moratorium, there is a heightened awareness of the pitfalls and pain points that can disrupt the foundation of that tenant-landlord dynamic. Inasmuch as we conscientiously strive to identify, avoid and uproot these dangers, moving forward we can begin to implement fail-safe measures to assure positive relationships between a tenant and their landlord. I encourage tenants to visualize issues and nip them in the bud. Simply put, it’s about being proactive rather than reactive.
CG: What is the best piece of advice you can offer the community around tenants’ rights?
AK: I believe the most useful piece of guidance I can share regarding best practices in the tenant-landlord relationship is for the tenant to make an active commitment to fostering a positive communication line. To that end, I find that both tenants and landlords gain value by acting as collaborative partners rather than limiting their connection to transactional exchanges. Having a candid understanding of one another’s short- and long-term housing goals prevents confusion and disputes from the outset, while also fostering community relations that are key to maintaining the culture of our neighborhoods, thereby bettering the community at large.
CG: What brought you to the legal field, especially around fairness in housing?
AK: While I never had childhood aspirations to become an attorney, I have naturally moved into the legal profession due to the influence of my academic background – primarily shaped by my Jesuit education throughout my life. During my formative years in high school and college, I was fortunate to have mentors who supported my interest in combining philosophy with social justice. This led me toward viewing law as an opportunity to serve with and for others by utilizing my professional skill set while also piquing my intellectual ambitions. So, when the pandemic inevitably affected the real estate interests of my San Francisco community, as an attorney I felt a sense of civic duty to support tenants in dealings with their landlords, aiming to find equitable solutions for everyone during a uniquely trying time. In the U.S., housing law resonates with everyone. It’s a fundamental need.