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Desi Advocacy: Conversation with Nadia Aziz, Directing Attorney - Law Foundation of Silicon Valley

This month, I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Nadia Aziz, the Housing Directing Attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. Ms. Aziz graduated from UCLA School of Law in 2007. Prior to leading indispensable litigation and policy advocacy efforts throughout Santa Clara County in her role at the Law Foundation, she served as a Housing Attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid.  

Can you tell me how the recent events surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic have impacted your clients? I know eviction moratoriums are something that housing advocates are pushing for in this trying time; can you speak a little bit more about what the Law Foundation is doing, and what specific measures and accommodations you would like to see for your clients?

Basically, a lot of low income families are losing income as a result of the coronavirus, especially people in the service sector. So we have been advocating both statewide and locally for cities to pass eviction moratoriums which would prevent tenants who are being evicted while this crisis is happening. Secondly, we have been advocating for a stop to [homeless] encampment sweeps – this is something that we have been advocating for a while. In our community there are a lot of people who are unhoused and unfortunately have to live in encampments and many times they are just left without options and their things are just thrown away. So we’ve continually for years been advocating for better sweep practices or to actually stop the sweeps, but it is particularly important now when there is a public health crisis going on.

Have you ever encountered a similar situation before? This seems to be unprecedented. 

No. We’ve never seen anything like this before – the closest thing that we have seen is when we had a flood here in San Jose [,CA] a couple years ago, in 2016. A lot of people were displaced because of the flood, but that was around 2000 people, which is so much smaller than the scale that we see here. And so, this is nothing like I have ever experienced, and I think generationally it’s like nothing people have experienced before. My dad, who is from Pakistan, was in Bangladesh during their Civil War and was saying this is kind of like that. So, it’s pretty unprecedented. 

Could you walk me through a typical workday? Who do you interact with most? What do you spend most of your time on? 

There is not really a typical day. I have a different role as I am directing the program now – it’s a little less exciting than when I was doing on the ground work. But our Housing team at the law Foundation is made of three different teams that all work together. We have an advocacy team, which is made of non-attorney advocates; we call them community workers. They do very high-volume intake and advice as well as outreach and education, so we look at them as the eyes and ears of the community and they really keep the pulse of what the trends are. They also do some administrative work where you don’t need an attorney’s authority to do those cases. Finally, we have a direct service team that is at this point is focused on eviction defense and they provide full representation for tenants facing eviction and they go to jury trials. And we have a policy and impact litigation team; they look at systemic approaches to address the housing issues that people in our community face. We use strategic litigation to address those issues, and we do a ton of policy advocacy, mostly on a local level– trying to things like tenant protections passed, or anti-displacement measures. We worked with the city of San Jose for an anti-displacement plan that came out this year. We are looking at systemic approaches to the issues that our clients are facing. Our goal with our work is to keep everyone in Santa Clara County housed, so we have this lens that whatever we are doing, is with the goal of keeping people housed. Secondarily, the other philosophy that we have in our housing unit is that we want to be community lawyers, and we want to look at things through a race equity lens.

What we mean by community lawyers is that we really want to be responsive to the needs of the community and have them lead how they want to see their communities or housing situations change. Having the race equity lens means we look at legal problems and legal situations from the lens of racial justice and we’re always looking at our data – how many people of color are we serving, how will our policy advocacy affect people of color? Even though it’s uncomfortable sometimes, we always call out that this will impact people of color. So that is kind of what we do generally.

[As for] the things that I work on personally – with the coronavirus crisis, I have shifted to working on getting eviction moratoriums passed, but alternatively, one of the other things I am working on is that Google is coming to San Jose, so we have been part of community efforts to try to get community benefits from Google. Mountain View has kind of passed a ban on  people sleeping in their RVs – it’s going to be part of a referendum in November and if that passes we may file litigation against them. So, I’m just looking at more systemic policy efforts in our local community.

Why did you choose to practice housing law?  

I went to law school after 9/11; seeing all the injustices that the Muslim community, South Asians, and Middle Eastern people were facing, motivated me to go to law school. Post law school, I was graduating right when the recession hit, and basically just took the first public interest job I could take, which was a housing attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid. I just knew that I wanted to do public interest work, I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly – I knew that I wanted to do something civil rights related, but I did not go in trying to be a housing attorney.

Who is your typical client? Could you tell me a bit about their attributes in terms of whether they are individuals, maybe small business owners, client sophistication, whether or not they are repeat clients? 

We serve people at 80% of the area median income – so people who are low income essentially. About 45-50% of the clients that we serve are Latino. About 15-20% are Asian, 10-15% are Black, and about a third are white and “other.” We mostly are serving individuals facing displacement; we don’t really serve small businesses.

The one thing we have seen a trend in – I started over ten years ago so when I started being a housing attorney in Santa Clara County, the issue was foreclosures and tenants who were facing foreclosure. The trend that we are seeing now is a lot of full-building evictions. Because there is a lot of gentrification and displacement happening in San Jose, we’re seeing entire mobile home parks, entire apartment buildings facing redevelopment. So it’s these entire communities and buildings that are being displaced. So we have been doing a lot of individual advocacy against that – for example we have a lawsuit against a small owner of a fourplex who claims she was evicting everyone – they are all Latino families. [The owner was] claiming that she was going to have her own family move in, but after investigation that turned out to be false, so we filed a suit against her.

We also have more systemic advocacy – we have been doing advocacy around San Jose to enact policies that will protect mobile home parks. For example, just last week we got the city to agree to change all of their general plan designations, which is basically what the land should be sued for, for all of their 58 mobile home parks, to mobile home designations. So that’s one trend that we are seeing and one way we are trying to address it in a systemic way.

What does learning on the job look like for you?

If there is a novel issue, the first thing I do is usually ask. Especially in California, we have a good network of housing advocates, so I usually reach out to one of them, like have you seen this before? And then a lot of it is just learning on the go- talk to other people, see what strategies other people have used, and figure out what is going to work in our community. So, it’s a little bit of researching, trying things that we don’t really know if they will work or not.

For example, the general plan change – that was seven years’ worth of work – that has included two times where the city council rejected what we had come up with. So it’s always a learning process and always about trying to advocate and do better.

What do you wish you yourself had done differently to better prepare for this career? Or is there anything you wish you had known going into this career?

The one thing that is really key for people doing public interest work is that we can’t rely on the courts to affect change, and that is especially true with Trump packing the courts as he is doing right now. We have so many things that should not have happened, happen -  example, the Supreme Court affirming the Muslim Ban. One thing that I wish what we talked about more in law school and that I am trying to teach to our younger attorneys is that we have to think of strategies that are nonlegal in the traditional sense – how do we support organizing efforts? How do we support educating tenants so that they feel empowered to make change? How do we do public policy? These are all  things that we don’t really talk about in law school but that are key to individuals who are trying to do public interest work in this age.

We have a lot of clients coming in for intake, so we are starting to have a lot of conversations and we are  trying to tighten the relationship with  community organizations. We are trying to bring in a theory of community organizing into our legal practice – because especially with more novel claims, you run a lot of risks going into litigations and may not be as successful. Litigation is one tool to achieve social change. It is really fun, and the strategic aspect is great. But it’s one tool. That is part of the philosophy we trying to embody in our housing practice – what are the other ways to get to where we want to go? If we litigate somewhere, and the result is that there are no sweeps, are we just going to alienate the community? Litigation is not always necessarily the answer without doing more groundwork.

Have any aspects of your personal identity impacted either the way that you perceive your role, or the way that others perceive you as a lawyer? This could be gender identity, cultural, or any other aspect that you feel is central to your sense of self.

I am at that point in my career where everybody kind of knows me, so it doesn’t matter as much. But going in, the legal profession is a very white, male-dominated profession. When I was in court a lot more than I am now, it wasn’t just that I was a woman who wore a headscarf, it was that I was the only person of color and the only woman attorney in the entire courtroom – even in a place as Santa Clara County. And the legal system in and of itself is a system that is set up to uphold the rights of land-owning, white men essentially – so just having that perspective has been helpful to me. You know that you have to just be better than everyone else, and just have to just be have that confidence that you know what you’re doing. That has just always been my philosophy.

What is the most satisfying part of your practice / work / industry? Would you have considered another specialty? Could you explain?

When clients feel empowered to advocate for themselves, or when I am empowering a client to push for some kind of change, that is when it is most satisfying to me.

Can you speak more about the allocation of authority between you and some of your clients? How you divide it up and how do you make your role known to your client? Does this have to do with the ‘means’ of the representation versus the ‘objectives?’

There are cases where you are litigating and there are cases where you are trying to do advocacy or come to some kind of agreement with another party. For me, it’s always that you have to tell the client, “these are what your options are, these are what I think certain paths could lead to. It is up to you to choose what you really want to do.” It is important that clients know what all the potential outcomes potentially could be and also feel like they have autonomy to choose what they want to do. I think in a public interest setting, it’s a little different because your clients are not paying you and you especially have a lot of clients who may not be familiar with the legal system and may be low-income – they will put a lot of trust in you. But it is really important that you take time to educate and build a rapport with the client.

For example, with this mobile home park case that was around six years long, it was the only mobile home park in Palo Alto. We knew that the only time collectively that the clients could meet collectively was Friday nights, so once a month on a Friday night one of us would go out to this park to meet with the clients. Doing that shows that you’re meeting the community where it’s at, but also, you’re building trust, where they feel like they can communicate with you about what they want to see and hope for in terms of their best outcomes. It also builds trust among them in terms of what you think and suggest to them in terms of outcomes.

What about your own personal success - What would you say makes you good at what you do? What do you think has served you well? Could you try and think of something that has not served in the same way?

For me, in this Directing Attorney role, it’s having a vision about, this is what we want our community to look like, we want to be a community of all people of color and anyone regardless of income is able to stay in Silicon Valley. Having that vision has really helped me be successful in what I have done. The other thing is, having an attitude of, “if we lose, we lose, but at least we tried,” is helpful. I think there have been a lot of cases where have that philosophy – and that has actually led us to some successes where I didn’t think we would win.

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