Michelle’s Story

Michelle spent months with sewage filling her tub and toilet, years without heating

Michelle lives in public housing and her unit had a lot of problems. She went years without heating. Mold grew in the walls. But worst of all, sewage continually would fill her tub and toilet. She was forced to relieve herself in a bucket. Her property manager wouldn’t fix any of these issues.

Michelle had lived in Bayview/Hunters Point her entire life. She was used to dealing with the Housing Authority. The red tape and bureaucracy truly astounded her.

In 2012 her grandchildren needed a place to stay for an extended period and Michelle welcomed them into her home. That’s when the heater broke. The winter was cold: every night they would shiver under blankets while watching TV or eating dinner. Michelle submitted work request after work request. A repairman even came out to inspect the unit once, but nothing came of it. It was determined that the entire heater would need to be replaced and the Housing Authority wouldn’t pay for it.

Around the same time, Michelle noticed black mold building up on the walls in the kitchen and the bathroom. Ventilation fans were never installed in her unit. In fact, the Housing Authority had sent out notices telling tenants to open their windows while showering or cooking pasta to combat mold. She tried scrubbing the mold but it always grew back. She sent in more work orders, but all of these were ignored. The Housing Authority was not going to fix it.

The worst was yet to come: in 2013 raw sewage started to fill her tub and toilet. The building she lived in wasn’t built with effective plumbing: sewage would often discharge and pool around the building. But for sewage to discharge straight into her tub was something new. In fact, she was forced to scrub the feces out by hand. Her toilet was completely inoperable. She was forced to wash in her kitchen sink and to relieve herself in a bucket.

She again went to the property manager and requested fixes. They sent out a plumber who snaked the pipes, but this failed to solve the problem. The Housing Authority refused to offer any more help and it was costing Michelle her health. She was having trouble breathing and was coughing more.

At the same time, the Housing Authority was attempting to collect thousands of dollars in back-rent from her. Michelle’s work as a construction foreman was never consistent and this led to a dispute over how much she owed. Simply put, Michelle wasn’t getting enough hours at her worksite to pay the rent the Housing Authority demanded. She faced an eviction.

I prayed for help. God sent Open Door Legal.

Michelle went down to try and get help. She visited several tenants groups, but they didn’t seem interested in helping her confront the Housing Authority. They told her what had happened was illegal, but she already knew that. The question was: who was going to force the Housing Authority to obey the law? She visited the Department of Building Inspection and was told that, unfortunately, they did not have jurisdiction over public housing properties.

That’s when Michelle found Open Door Legal. She saw a little A-Frame sign that said ‘Get Legal Help,’ and she walked in on a whim. We immediately took her case.

Open Door Legal has done more than just

transform my living space; it’s changed my life.

Today, Michelle lives in a safe, heated home with a functioning bathroom. “Open Door Legal has done more than just transform my living space; it’s changed my life.” When she first came through our doors, Michelle describes herself as someone who was shut down and closed off from others. But after working with Open Door Legal, she began attending community events and even sending new clients our way. “Now I am much more connected with my community, and even serve on Open Door Legal’s board. I love Open Door. They’re a godsend.”

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.