Talking on the phone to desperate people

iStock_000002680448XSmall-300x199Spent a few hours yesterday volunteering at a tenant’s rights clinic. That makes me sound much more political than I am. I am not a huge activist-type. But it’s interesting, and I do have the time. Also, Oakland has such interesting tenant’s rights laws that I do find myself wanting to help people take advantage of them. This is one of the few cities in America where you can actually do something if your landlord tries to raise your rent or get you to leave. In many ways, it’s a really drastic curtailment of property rights.

Anyway, doing intake for this clinic is one of the few experiences in my life that dramatically exceeded my expectations for it. I’d thought, based on all the other times in my life when I’ve done some perfunctory bit of volunteer work, that the whole thing would be a bit dreary. But it was actually very intense and very gripping. What I hadn’t really thought about, until I started calling people, was that these people are in real trouble, and they need real help. For many of them, this is the most stressful thing to have happened to them in years. And, by and large, they are dealing with evictions or rent increases or landlord harassment by themselves, with no legal aid or even any sense of what their rights are.

And when you call them and ask them what’s up, then they immediately start to spill these really long stories which were, in many cases, kind of interesting. There were so many different kinds of people and so many different sorts of living situations. I’d never known how many renters live in situations that are a bit more complicated than “I rent an apartment in an apartment building.”

The biggest challenge, actually, was getting them to stop spilling their stories, and figuring out what exactly their specific problem was. Like, often there’s so much background detail,  many agreements and changes in life plan and broken promises and miscommunications, when, really, the problem is just that the landlord is asking for a rent increase and they’re not allowed to.

I wasn’t allowed to give advice over the phone but, from the limited amount I know about tenant’s law, alot of these peoples’ rights were being violated. In many cases, the landlords clearly didn’t know what the law was (or they’d have gone about things differently). But in some cases, it was obvious that they did. It’s interesting to hear someone describe an action that, to them, is completely mysterious, but makes perfect sense to you, because you know which law it’s attempting to evade.