Dennis's Story

“All my roommate and I wanted was the $5,500 dollars each we were entitled to”

When Dennis first moved into his home in Bayview, there was a 2 foot by 6 inch hole in the wall at the front of the house. For 19 years, he kept the hole covered and always paid his rent on time.

After a big rain this last November, the rot around the hole grew larger and the entire front wall of the home began to smell. The conditions became so bad that Dennis had to inform his landlord.

However, Denny’s landlord wouldn’t return his phone calls. It was only until Dennis threatened the landlord with calling the building inspector that he finally received a call back. The landlord was upset with the ultimatum. Dennis was told him and his roommate were being evicted and were offered very little for their displacement.

“All my roommate and I wanted was the $5,500 dollars each we were entitled to,” Dennis says, “The landlord wanted to pay $2,000 dollars for both of us.”

Dennis already had a new place to move into and wanted to avoid months of legal back-and-forth, which would’ve possibly awarded him more money. Dennis didn’t want more money; he just wanted what he was entitled to. He dropped in one day at our offices for advice, and shortly after began working with Isaac Jacobson, a Open Door Legal volunteer attorney.

Facing a tenant with legal representation and an official order of repair after the building inspector became involved, the landlord eventually offered Dennis and his roommate the $5,500 each they wanted.

“But,” according to Dennis, “they wanted to give two checks, and to have their attorney hold them. I told Isaac, ‘no way, I will never see that second check. I’ll never see it. I’ll be in small claims forever.’ I’ll only sign the agreement if [Isaac] holds the checks.”

“I have rights. People have rights. People need to know they have rights. With a place like this, you have people who can defend your rights. This is what this neighborhood needs.”

Isaac was able to negotiate new terms with the opposing attorney, which stated Open Door Legal would hold the two checks and one check would be issued after move out and the second check 72 hours later.

After moving out, Dennis’s suspicions proved warranted. The landlord’s attorney called Isaac and claimed that Dennis wasn’t living on the property. “They didn’t want me to give him the second check,” says Isaac.

“But Isaac just handed over the check to me because there was a contract and he’s my lawyer,” Dennis told us. “I have rights. People have rights. People need to know they have rights. With a place like this, you have people who can defend your rights. This is what this neighborhood needs.”

“That’s why I just donated $200 dollars,” Dennis said with tears in his eyes. “I don’t have money. That’s a lot of money for me. Thank you guys so much. Thanks a lot.”

Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.