‘Radical Real Estate Law School’ Is In Session

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Above photo: Christine Hernandez, pictured with daughter Sofia Lina Hernandez, lives in a tenant- and land-trust-owned home in Oakland. She’s now applying her unconventional housing background to a legal apprenticeship. Pete Rosos.

An Oakland program is training new housing attorneys without weighing them down in student debt.

When Christine Hernandez saw an ad for something called the “Radical Real Estate Law School” in Oakland, she was intrigued.

“I thought, radical? That’s me,” she said. “Real estate? I’m interested. Law school? Never thought of it.”

The program is offered through the Sustainable Economies Law Center in downtown Oakland, one of the handful of organizations taking advantage of a little-known rule in California and a few other states allowing people to take the bar exam without first obtaining a traditional law school degree. Instead, apprentices study and work directly with practicing lawyers for four years, saving money and boosting their host organization’s workforce.

For Hernandez, becoming a lawyer through an unconventional method made sense. She’d come in direct contact with housing law herself, through unconventional living situations.

Five years ago, Hernandez’s family was evicted from a home they rented in Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood. Unable to afford anything they found on Craigslist, Hernandez, her husband, and their four children piled into the car and went looking for buildings with “for rent” signs in the windows.

“What we found instead was vacant property after vacant property after vacant property,” she said. The buildings were abandoned or simply not on the market.

In a “move of desperation,” the Hernandezes decided to squat in an empty East Oakland house. They gathered friends to help deep-clean the trashed rooms and turn the neglected property into a livable space.

When she was first considering squatting, Hernandez sought out advice from a local nonprofit law center, but she said the attorneys there made her feel “all kinds of dirty and weird” because she wanted to live in a property she didn’t own and wasn’t renting. But she soon learned of an obscure law called “adverse possession,” which allows illegal occupants of a home to gain ownership of it by paying taxes on it for five years. But a year in, they came home to find it locked up, their belongings combed through, and their dog nowhere to be found.

After they were kicked out of the house they squatted, they lived in a series of U-Haul trucks and vans, hotel rooms, and friends’ homes, often showering at the gym, while searching for something permanent. The family eventually moved itself into a vacant unit in a run-down apartment building on 12th Avenue, where tenants were facing eviction threats. What followed was a saga involving visits from police, foreclosure, and failed attempts by the private lender who foreclosed on the property to auction off the building. Finally, in a turn of luck, and after months of tenant organizing, lender Michael Roy agreed to sell the building to the Bay Area Community Land Trust. That will keep the property permanently affordable and in the hands of the current residents. For the first time in five years, the Hernandez family had a stable place to live.

Throughout the dramatic experience, Hernandez saw firsthand how the legal system could be used to the advantage of low-income tenants—but also how it failed struggling families like hers. As she’s gone through tough and eye-opening experiences, Hernandez said she has always wanted to offer support to other lawyerless tenants in situations similar to her own, but she was terrified of advising them to do the wrong thing. Learning more about the law, she figured, would put her in a stronger position to help them.

“I’m not satisfied with [stopping at] housing for seven families,” she said, referring to the land trust’s purchase of her building. “I want housing for everyone.”

Torts and tenant organizing: Oakland apprentices try to do it all

In California, apprentices like Hernandez must work in a law office or judge’s chambers at least 18 hours a week for four years, and take monthly exams. The office keeps the State Bar of California updated on apprentices’ progress. This path to lawyerdom—which technically predates the existence of law schools—got some fresh attention last year when Kim Kardashian West announced she’d started an apprenticeship in a San Francisco law office. The United Farmworkers Union has provided legal apprenticeships for decades, too.

While Kardashian West could certainly afford law school tuition, the average graduate leaves more than $100,000 in debt. Meanwhile, the percentage of those recent students who find work in the field has slipped substantially.

SELC took on its first four-year cohort of apprentices in 2013 in large part to recruit and keep talented staff, without taking on debt itself by hiring outside lawyers for help all the time. That initial cohort did not concentrate on a specific type of law or subject matter. For the second round, which started in early June, SELC decided to narrow the focus to housing and property law.

“At some point we realized that a lot of the change we’ve been making over the years—in worker cooperatives, food systems—we’ve found over and over again that the rug was getting pulled out from under projects,” said Janelle Orsi, SELC’s executive director and co-founder. “And it so often comes back to real estate.” Many of the organization’s clients have trouble securing or holding onto land, housing, and commercial real estate. And the city where SELC is based, Oakland, is in the throes of a housing crisis that has seen rents and home prices rise while the Black population has diminished.

Because the new cohort started during the coronavirus pandemic, the program has been entirely online and remote. The apprentices meet as a group regularly, and work directly with SELC staff or on self-directed projects. In one of the first meetings, apprentice Dorian Payán led a discussion about what “radical real estate” means, and everyone chimed in.

To Orsi, the phrase refers to “addressing the problematic roots of our real estate system and our property law system, and putting land back into community control.”

In evaluating more than 80 apprentice applications, Orsi and fellow supervisor Tia Katrina Taruc-Myers “didn’t want candidates who just wanted poor people to become homeowners,” Orsi said. They wanted apprentices who might have ideas about how to abolish the concept of homeownership.

Besides Hernandez, there’s Payán, who’s worked extensively on agricultural land preservation and border abolition. There’s Hope Williams, who’s worked in politics, housing advocacy, and labor organizing in San Francisco. She’s also working on the campaign to adopt the “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act” in Berkeley, which would make home sales to land trusts and residents like Hernandez and her neighbors more common and easier. A fourth apprentice, adélàjà simon, will start next week.

Williams said that besides being a “good way to bypass a quarter-million in law school debt,” the SELC program lets her direct her own legal education. “I’m able to study for the law, get paid for it, and apply it,” she said.