Public Advocates celebrated its history
as a social justice leader
Celebrating Public Advocates' history as a social justice leader
Explore stories of the people who created Public Advocates and continue to build its 50-year legacy of social justice.
Founders: The Beginning
This lawsuit, filed by Public Advocates, stopped displacement of over 4,000 elderly, low-income persons from San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Redevelopment and spurred creation of 1,000 replacement units. A May 1973 agreement allowed TOOR to develop 400 additional low-income units within the program area. TOOR evolved into Tenants and Owners Development Corporation (TODCO), an organization which persists today and oversees, in the SoMa area of San Francisco, almost “1,000 living units for the elderly, homeless, hotel tenants and people with disabilities.”
As the time for the 1970 census drew near, Public Advocates founder Bob Gnaizda predicted a vast undercount with resultant shortfall in support for largely minority communities that were being treated as essentially non-existent. With Gnaizda’s support, the Mexican American Population Commission of California (MAPCC) was formed with Gnaizda as its general counsel. Following correspondence between MAPCC and the Census Bureau and a lawsuit, Confederación de la Raza Unida, et al v. George Hay Brown, the Census Bureau saw the writing on the wall, settled, and adjusted its methods and count of “Spanish Americans.” This revised the count of Latinos upward by 1.5 million people.
Public Advocates’ four founders – Bob Gnaizda, Anthony Kline, Sid Wolinsky and Peter Sitkin signed the firm’s Articles of Incorporation on November 19, 1970. The firm formally opened its office at 433 Turk Street in San Francisco in the summer of 1971.
La Raza Unida & The Sierra Club v. Volpe resulted in a preliminary injunction that halted construction of a $100M freeway that would’ve displaced more than five thousand low-income Mexican Americans in Alameda County. The 14 miles of highway was planned to run through Hayward, Union City and Fremont. The case was decided on September 9, 1971.
This omnibus suit charged racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, banking, and veterans affairs by the State of California. Public Advocates handled the employment section of the suit.
This successful constitutional challenge to the San Francisco Fire Department’s discriminatory testing process resulted in a court order prohibiting use of the discriminatory tests which had harmed applicants of color and people of color seeking promotions and called on the department to institute a quota system for hiring.
This landmark lawsuit involving four separate State Supreme Court decisions challenged school funding based on local property tax revenue as failing to meet requirements of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the California Constitution and creating huge wealth disparities between districts. The case established that an equal educational opportunity is a fundamental right in California and it revolutionized the allocation of funds to protect that right, allowing public interest lawyers to capture fees for successful outcomes in major victories.
For decades, thousands of African American students in California public schools were misplaced in separate, self-contained classes for the mentally retarded through the use of racially and culturally biased standardized I.Q. tests. Public Advocates successfully brought this lawsuit to stop the use of the tests with African American students. This resulted in the landmark 1979 Peckham decision, affirmed by the Court of Appeal. To this day the injunction remains in place — no I.Q. tests to identify or place African Americans in special education in Califiornia. When the parties returned to the Court of Appeal in 1986 the Court affirmed Judge Peckham’s decision.
Public Advocates launched this class action civil rights lawsuit in April 1973 on behalf of eleven named plaintiffs who were persons of color and women, charging the SFPD with discriminatory practices and standards in the hiring, promotion and assignment of police officers. After six years of battles, the case was won through a broad consent agreement eliminating the use of discriminatory exams, height and weight limitations and other discriminatory and class-biased screening and selection devices. Public Advocates spent the next three decades enforcing the consent decree and fending off challenges. We won on several appeals to The Ninth Circuit court. Three prominent plaintiffs became chief of police in San Francisco, Fred Lau, Earl Sanders and Heather Fong.
Public Advocates filed this challenge to a nursing home operator’s right to relocate its patients without first considering and providing for the patients’ needs. The complaint alleged violations of federal and state statutory law as well as due process in the manner of closing the home.
In its first action, the Greenline Coalition threatened to file an action with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board against Glendale Federal and West Coast Federal Savings & Loan to block a merger. The action resulted in a pledge by the banks to develop inner-city lending programs, name minority and female representatives to its board of directors and revise its philanthropic policies.
This Administrative Petition was filed by Public Advocates in June 1983 with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of civil rights, women, and health organizations. The petition was an effort to move national leaders to address the critical issue of infant mortality, specifically how the problem related to not providing poor women with access to comprehensive prenatal care. Public Advocates’ staff attorney Lois Salisbury appeared before the Select Committee of Hunger of the U.S. Congress to argue for the need to give women widespread access to prenatal care as a way to address the high infant mortality rates in the U.S. She and staff attorney Angela Glover Blackwell presented results from a survey done at the time by Public Advocates with the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health of 45 US cities which showed a widening gap between the survivability of black and white babies, in part due to low birth weights.
This lawsuit filed by Public Advocates stemmed from early staff member Angela Glover Blackwell’s experience of being refused when she went to open a checking account at Wells Fargo bank because she did not have a credit card. The lawsuit argued the bank policy discriminated against elderly, low-income, and black customers. Discovery in the case showed that many people were denied access to checking accounts for not having credit cards, and many of those were people of color. The lawsuit took 4 years to resolve. Although the final ruling in this case by the California Supreme Court favored the bank, the case put Wells Fargo and the banking industry as a whole in California on notice that consumers from low-income communities of color would ally with lawyers and advocates to continue to monitor and organize around injustices regarding their treatment by banks.
King v. Meese, filed by Public Advocates in 1985, charged that California’s compulsory insurance law discriminated against drivers who live in poor, inner-city neighborhoods where insurance was unaffordable due to red-lining practices. The Los Angeles Superior Court halted the revocation of driver’s licenses for those without proof of insurance, but the California Supreme Court later found the suit without legal merit, noting that the matter would be more properly addressed to the legislature than to the courts. Although the lawsuit was not won in court, it served to show the disparate impact of such laws against low-income communities of color, as did many of the legal and advocacy efforts by the organization in the 1980’s. It also fueled the creation of alternative insurance options by the legislature.
In 1985, Public Advocates initiated a project to address the growing challenge of homelessness in the Bay Area, eventually partnering with the Association of Bay Area Governments to launch a regional support center, HomeBase, to coordinate homeless policies and public and private homeless service providers. In the mid-1990s, HomeBase became an independent entity, with former Public Advocates attorney Martha Fleetwood as its Executive Director. In 1989, HomeBase published When the Rent Comes Due: Breaking the Link between Eviction and Homelessness, An Eviction-Prevention Action Plan.
In 1986, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) ordered Pacific Bell telephone company to work out a settlement in a lawsuit Public Advocates brought against Pacific Telesis Group (PacBell parent) charging that the company’s telephone customers were misled into buying costlier options than they needed, and not informed about an affordable “lifeline” service made available by the company. The settlement resulted in a refund to customers for misleading sales practices. At the time of the order, Public Advocates’ Bob Gnaizda estimated that the refund could reach $100 million dollars, according to a New York Times article published on August 7, 1986. The Los Angeles Times reported in July 1986 that the PUC also proposed that the company be fined $49.5 million in addition to the refunds.
In 1992, Carmela Castellano-Garcia, then a staff attorney with Public Advocates, led the founding of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California—the only statewide organization with a specific emphasis on Latinx health. The coalition first began as a project of Public Advocates, and was founded in collaboration with health care providers, consumers and advocates to impact Latinx health by focusing on policy development, providing enhanced information, and community involvement. LCHC continues to today as the only Latinx-led statewide policy and advocacy organization protecting and advancing Latinx health equity in California.
In 1992, Public Advocates sued California on behalf of 50,000 African American, Latinx, and Asian educators who had been denied employment in CA public schools since the CBEST test (The California Basic Education Skills Test) had been implemented in 1982. An en banc panel of 11 Ninth Circuit judges disagreed with the State’s argument that discrimination would have to be intentional to challenge the test and agreed with the plaintiffs that state teacher tests must be job-related. Applying that standard, the State’s own experts recommended changes to the test that resulted in elimination of several discriminatory test questions as well as an increase of the time allotted to complete the testing to the benefit of tens of thousands of test-takers of color annually.
In December of 1997, a judge in Alameda County blocked the state of California from carrying out plans to deny prenatal care to undocumented immigrants beginning on January 1, 1998. The ruling stemmed from the filing of a lawsuit by Public Advocates on behalf of low-income undocumented pregnant women who were to be denied emergency and pre-natal care under Medi-Cal. The policy to deny the women this most basic care was originally proposed by Governor Pete Wilson in 1996, as part of his crusade to deny all government services to the undocumented. The Yvette Doe case maintained prenatal care for some 40,000 undocumented women while its appeal was pending; ultimately, newly-elected Governor, Gray Davis, signed legislation re-authorizing prenatal care for undocumented immigrants under Medi-Cal in 1999.
In 1997, Public Advocates managing attorney Mark Savage represented several of the 118 community based organizations involved in hammering out a benefits agreement ok’d by the California Public Utilities Commission as a condition in the merger of telecommunications giants SBC and the Pacific Telesis Group. The community benefits agreement included a $214 million refund to consumers and set aside $50 million over five years to bring new technology to underserved communities. Said Mark Savage in an LA Times article at the time, “We’re certainly glad that they approved the community partnership agreement and recognized how important it is to all of the ratepayers of California that these kinds of economic development and community building programs be included in mergers.” Nine statewide coalitions were involved, including African Americans for Telecommunications Equity; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Council of La Raza, and Korean Youth and Community Center; the Asian Pacific American Community Partnership; the Universal Service Alliance; the Los Angeles Urban League; the Asian Pacific Islanders California Action Network; the Greenlining Coalition; the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility; and the World Institute on Disability. Said Mark Savage in a press release at the time, “California’s future depends upon such full and equal access for its low-income communities and communities of color. Over 80 percent of all new households now being formed in California are Latino, Asian, and African American households. Over three million low-income households require lifeline telephone service, and over seven million Californians speak common languages other than English. Over five million Californians have disabilities. This is California’s diversity, and it is California’s future wage and tax base. Each of these Californians has every desire to compete and contribute fully, and the Community Partnership Agreement provides critical help toward developing that opportunity.”
In this 1998 lawsuit, Spanish Speaking Citizens’ Foundation v. Quackenbush, Public Advocates challenged a policy created by then Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush allowing insurers to base auto insurance rates primarily upon where consumers live (their zip codes), gender, and other factors rather than on their driving record, annual mileage and years of experience. The case struck down the offending policy. The policy both violated Proposition 103 which brought major insurance reform to California, and disproportionately harmed low-income communities of color.
Eliezer Williams, 6th grade student at San Francisco’s Luther Burbank Middle School, one of 100 students who joined the suit from around the state. Williams v. California Plaintiffs, a class action lawsuit, challenged California’s failure to provide basic necessities to all public school students — textbooks, well-trained teachers, and decent school facilities. Public Advocates, along with co-lead counsel, the ACLU and Morrison and Forrester, reached a settlement on August 13, 2004, which won increased state and school district accountability for providing these fundamental school resources, and nearly $1 billion in funding to help lowest performing schools remedy underlying resource disparities. The settlement also gave students, teachers, parents and community groups the right to file a complaint when students are denied access to basic resources.
Following oral argument on February 11, 2004, a unanimous California Supreme Court held not only that the Insurance Commissioner has the power to collect “redlining data” from insurers, but that the public has an absolute right to obtain that data upon request. The ruling was in a lawsuit filed by Public Advocates, State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co. v. Garamendi. This groundbreaking ruling at last made it possible to begin to stamp out an epidemic of insurance redlining that long deprived families and businesses in low-income communities of a basic necessity, without which (in the words of the President’s National Advisory Council on Insurance), “[n]ew housing cannot be constructed,” businesses “cannot … survive,” and workers cannot legally drive to work. From 1991 through 1994, Public Advocates worked hard to successfully establish comprehensive anti-redlining regulations—the first of their kind in the nation. These regulations forced insurers of automobiles, homes, and small businesses to disclose annually where they were and were not serving low-income, minority, and underserved communities across California.
Beginning in 2005, Public Advocates represented a class of AC Transit bus riders of color in a challenge to the Bay Area’s transportation funding agency, alleging that the agency prioritized funds for the expansion of rail service for higher-income commuters, with the effect of reducing bus service for low-income riders of color. While the courts found that MTC’s $13 billion transit expansion program had a disproportionate harmful impact on low income riders, it also found that the agency had “substantial reason” for its practices. Nevertheless, the case brought attention to discriminatory funding practices and through coalition advocacy Public Advocacy succeeded in winning a new revenue stream dedicated to transit operations in 2014, and pushed passage of a bill that more than doubled the State Transit Assistance program.
Public Advocates brought suit against the City of Pleasanton in 2006, challenging its housing cap and its failure to plan to build more affordable housing. After a victory in the court of appeal, the California Attorney General intervened on our side. We reached a settlement requiring the city to rezone three sites near the Dublin-Pleasanton BART station for high-density transit-oriented development, with no less than 15 percent of the units to be affordable to very-low income families; to adopt and implement a non-discrimination resolution that prioritizes sites and action programs to promote non-profit affordable housing development for families; to adopt a new affordable housing plan (Housing Element). It also required the city to amend its General Plan to remove all references to the unconstitutional Housing Cap and adopt a Climate Action Plan. The case led other recalcitrant cities to fall in line, including Menlo Park, Alameda and Concord.
In 2009, when BART proposed the construction of a connector to the Oakland International Airport, Public Advocates filed a civil rights and environmental justice administrative complaint with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The complaint challenged BART’s plan to spend over $500 million on a 3.2 mile extension of BART service from the Coliseum station to the Oakland airport, replacing an existing bus line and doubling the cost of transportation for low income workers who depend on the bus service. Three San Francisco Bay Area organizations brought this complaint against the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (“BART”) under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 12898, and related provisions. The organizations, Urban Habitat, Transform and Genesis were represented by Public Advocates’ Guillermo Mayer and Richard Marcantonio. Finding that BART had not appropriately studied the project’s impact on low-income and minority residents, in an unprecedented action the FTA ordered that $70 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds be taken away from the planned expansion and redistributed to other transit agencies for the preservation of existing service.
In May of 2019, Public Advocates was profiled by the long-standing PBS series, Visionaries, hosted by Sam Waterston. The show, “A Law Firm Like no Other,” was shown on several hundred public broadcast and online stations throughout the country. The program featured stories about two major advocacy campaigns led by Public Advocates and our community partners leading to a watershed school financing law known as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF); and a $20 million community benefits agreement between Facebook, East Palo Alto residents and other local cities to help address the impact on housing when Facebook expanded its Menlo Park campus, drawing thousands of new workers.
CQE v. CA was a state constitutional challenge to the underfunding of CA’s public schools. The challenge came from an unprecedented coalition, Public Advocates, community-based organizations including Campaign for Quality Education, CFJ, PICO, ACCE , and low-income parents and students. With California ranked with the bottom five states in the country in the adequacy of school funding, the case attacked a system that provided little more than an obligation for Districts to open the schoolhouse doors. A divided appeals court panel found no right to a quality education under the California constitution, despite the earlier Serrano decision and a divided California Supreme Court refused to hear the case given the recent enactment of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) legislation. Many of the claims for more rational and equitable spending in the case became law in LCFF in 2013.
Public Advocates was one of the creators, and is still one of the leading members, of the 6 Wins for Social Equity Network, a bold group of strategic allies from social justice, faith, public health and environmental organizations across the Bay Area that came together in 2010. The 6 Wins for Social Equity Network is the region’s only collaborative focused on targeting and shaping how regional planning decisions will affect struggling working families in the Bay Area for decades to come. Its goal is to break the long-standing patterns of segregation, sprawl and health risks that plague the Bay Area.
1. Frequent, reliable and affordable bus service
2. Affordable housing
3. Investment without displacement
4. Quality jobs
5. Healthy and safe communities
6. Community power
In 2011, the 6 Wins for Social Equity Network developed a proposal for the Bay Area’s regional agencies to consider as they planned for decades of growth and development affecting the housing and transportation needs of millions of people and dozens of communities throughout the region. This proposal presented by 6 Wins came to be called the Equity, Environment & Jobs Scenario, or EEJ. When regional leaders developed Plan Bay Area, a massive, $300 billion dollar investment, we asked the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments to evaluate it for inclusion in the plan. They refused but after months of organizing and advocacy by 6 Wins members, they agreed to study EEJ in the environmental impact report for Plan Bay Area. Their analysis concluded that the EEJ was not only better for low-income communities of color but was “the environmentally superior alternative” and better for the region as a whole. Since that time, EEJ continues to be the basis for 6 Wins advocacy around regional housing and transportation planning.
In a major step towards greater educational equity, on July 1, 2013, California passed Local Control Funding Formula legislation creating a new education finance system, the LCFF. Public Advocates, along with our grassroots partners, played a major role in shaping the LCFF by bringing in community voices along with our partners. In 2014, regulations for implementation of the LCFF were enacted. Public Advocates helped shape the regulations to ensure the funding flows to high need students. LCFF directed some $9.5 billion per year to school districts serving some of California’s highest-need student groups: low-income, foster youth, and English language learner students. The new law also required a higher level of community engagement and input into district spending priorities and plans than anywhere in the county, addressing the full spectrum of community partner priorities and established a new multiple-measures accountability system. To this day, Public Advocates works alongside community partners to deliver on the promises of LCFF.
Beginning in 2014, carbon cap-and-trade auction revenues brought billions of dollars each year into California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. Public Advocates, in coalition with climate justice allies, not only worked to ensure a dedicated source of revenue for affordable housing and public transit from these revenues, but tackled the thorny question of how to ensure that all of the revenues in the Fund benefited residents of disadvantaged communities. The entire history of Public Advocates’ work demonstrated it was not enough that public investments be made in those communities: such investments could just as easily displace existing residents as benefit them. Reflecting on that history, and on the guiding principle that public policy and investment should follow the lead of directly-impacted residents, who know the needs and priorities of their communities, we developed a framework. That framework, which directs funds to priorities identified by the community, which provide a substantial benefit targeted at low-income residents, and avoid harmful impacts, was incorporated into California statute and the guidelines of the CA Air Resources Board. It provides a model for community-led decision making that not only guides the investment of billions of dollars in state funding to truly meet the needs of the communities in which those investments are made, but is also being considered for climate investments that may be made at the federal level.
On July 11, 2015 Public Advocates filed lawsuit on behalf of parent Reyna Frias and the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles against the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for not accounting for billions of dollars in funds earmarked for high need students. In the first case brought to enforce the Local Control Funding Formula, this coalition suit challenged the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) failure to direct some $450 million annually to the required increased and improved services for high-need students. This extraordinary first victory resulted in the California Department of Education requiring LAUSD to properly allocate all of this funding going forward. A final settlement regarding the funding for lost services from years past allocated $150 million in services over 3 years to the district’s 50 highest-need middle and high schools.
Public Advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, and PolicyLink represented four community organizations in East Palo Alto in raising cutting-edge legal arguments under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) about the environmental impacts of Facebook’s proposed expansion of its corporate headquarters in Menlo Park. These legal concerns and the prospect of litigation over the Facebook expansion project led to negotiations with Facebook culminating in a groundbreaking legal agreement between the corporation and the four community groups. The agreement, which resolved the groups’ CEQA claims, brought $20 million in community benefits to local low-income residents. The agreement also created an ongoing partnership between local community members and Facebook to work on solving the crisis of housing affordability and displacement plaguing Silicon Valley. The community groups represented in this matter were Youth United for Community Action, Faith in Action Bay Area, Comité de Vecinos del Lado Oeste, East Palo Alto, and Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. The December 2016 “Compact to Increase Equity, Opportunity and Access in Silicon Valley” was designed to bring funding to build and preserve affordable housing, protect tenants from displacement, and train local residents for jobs. In August, 2017, after further legal work advising these community groups in discussions with Facebook, a fund manager was chosen to administer the affordable housing fund, which is expected to result in leveraging the initial $18.5 million in affordable housing funding into a $75 million fund that will help to finance more than 500 units for low-income households in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. This agreement set a new precedent for local community investment by Silicon Valley companies, pointing the way toward corporate-community partnerships and more robust corporate social responsibility in the tech sector. Such partnerships offer the promise of mitigating the negative impacts of the global tech industry on low-income communities of color in the Bay Area.
In 2017, Public Advocates co-founded Housing Now!—a coalition dedicated to winning housing justice and to holding state decision makers accountable to the community by seeking, among other things, to challenge uncontrolled rent increases and the repeal of Costa-Hawkins, a law placing severe limitations on local rent control policies. The work of this unstoppable coalition resulted in the passage of AB 1482, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, bringing into effect the first statewide rent regulation and just cause eviction protections in California. That was followed by enactment in August, 2020 of the Small Landlord Relief and Stabilization Act of 2020 with its statewide eviction moratoria during the height of the Covid pandemic.
AHJ was formed in 2017 following the 2016 presidential election that put Donald Trump into the White House. The coalition, made up of Public Advocates, PolicyLink, Lawyers’ Committee, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, and Right to the City Alliance, came together to address the nation’s affordable housing and displacement crisis, advance the rights of tenants, respond to harmful public policy actions, and shift the narrative from housing as a commodity to a human right. AHJ’s primary strategy to achieve these goals has been to build and support the infrastructure needed for a powerful, grassroots-led housing justice movement. Since it’s inception, AHJ has developed advocacy and education materials on federal fair housing and housing justice issues that have garnered over a million video views and digital explainers that have been accessed tens of thousands of times. The coalition produced a Housing Justice National Platform as the basis for its work.
In 2017, among other assaults on the rights of people of color and others, the Trump administration moved quickly to gut a critical portion of the federal Fair Housing Act. In response, Public Advocates’ Sam Tepperman-Gelfant reached out to allies from the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the National Housing Law Project to craft legislation that would put the federal requirements to affirmatively further fair housing into state law in California. After a year of determined advocacy work, in September of 2018, Governor Brown signed AB 686, sponsored by Assembly member Miguel Santiago . Beginning in 2019, hundreds of cities, counties and state agencies in California were required to take proactive measures to fix housing inequality on the basis of race, national origin, disability and other protected classes. An important consequence of the law is that all cities and counties must reach out and engage constituents on issues of inequity and discrimination in housing. Public Advocates is currently involved in implementation of that watershed state law.