Renters seeking legal advice in tenant-landlord disputes frequently wonder whether they have come to the right place when they enter the offices of the Westside Tenant Action Center in Venice.
On the south wall hangs a photographic history of Nicaragua with captions that read, "We will not be moved," "Solidarity is the people's tenderness" and "Agrarian reform is freedom for the rural worker."
Across the room, on the north wall, is a picture of Ronald Reagan in his pre-presidential days, dressed as a cowboy, looking stern with his gun drawn. The title is, "The Fascist gun in the West."
The openly leftist messages reflect the views of about 20 volunteers, including eight attorneys, who have counseled 200 renters a month without charge for more than six years.
The center, at 442 Lincoln Blvd., is sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild, once a target of the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover during the height of Cold War concern about so-called "communist-front" organizations.
The guild was founded in 1937 to seek economic justice and social equality but came to fame by providing legal representation to people accused of being subversives during the McCarthy period of the 1940s and '50s.
"I guess that we are not officially a subversive organization anymore," joked attorney Philip Brimble, 32, a Venice center volunteer and immediate past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the guild.
The center is one of the few agencies on the Westside dispensing free legal advice and the only one that does not restrict its counseling to people legally defined as low-income.
D. Stephen Clare, 40, a Venice attorney who helped found the center when he was a law student, said that the legal standard of poverty--$518 monthly income for a single person, $1,062 monthly for a family of four--effectively shuts out large numbers of people who have rental disputes on the Westside and cannot afford to pay for legal advice.
"Because of generally higher rents on the Westside," Clare said, "a higher percentage of people's incomes goes into housing. Many people here who earn more than the . . . low income can be in the same financial bind as others in less costly areas."
Clare and other volunteers in the center, which is open Tuesday and Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons, maintained that the political message on the center's walls is not inconsistent with rental problems here.
"We say it is all part of the same struggle for a decent life," Clare said, "whether it is a renter seeking to stay in his home in Venice or a villager seeking to establish a good life in Nicaragua.
"We do not proselytize at the center--people coming here get straight legal advice on their problems. But while waiting for our help, we are not unhappy if they look at the posters and make the connection between their problems and those of people in other parts of the world."
Clare said that the center was formed in the summer of 1978 when tenants were growing increasingly angry over rising rents and their failure to benefit from Proposition 13, the Howard Jarvis initiative that cut property taxes for property owners.
The Los Angeles Lawyers Guild received a $2,000 federal grant to start the office, then located on Main Street in Venice, but most of the money went toward publishing a handbook on the Los Angeles City rent control law.
The group has never received another grant and is always struggling to raise enough money to keep the office open. Clare said monthly expenses total about $600 and the monthly deficit runs from $200 to $300.
"We are looking for a co-tenant to help us with expenses," Clare said. "We get about half of the money needed to pay our bills in donations from people who benefit from the program.
"If we do not find a way to pay the basic expenses, we will have to close down the office in about six months."
Center volunteers had planned to apply for funding from the State Bar Assn.'s Legal Trust Fund, which plans in March to start dispensing $7.2 million yearly to organizations giving legal aid to low-income people.
But the center may not be eligible because one of trust fund's requirements is that an organization have a minimum yearly budget of $20,000, far more than the center has been able to spend in a single year.
Center leaders have resisted applying for government funds because of the group's political convictions.
"There are always strings attached to government aid," Clare said. "If we got government money, I imagine that we would have to take down our posters. And while many of our volunteers would continue to give their time to the center, others would not want to be associated with a center that neglected its social message."
Brimble, for example, said that he volunteers at the center because "you quickly learn that not everyone can afford the services of an attorney, while landlords invariably can pay for legal representation. It is depressing to think about people being evicted with no place to go."
He also said he gains some satisfaction from throwing a monkey wrench into a landlord's plans.
Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers, who was an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation when it had a Venice office, said that Westside tenants are under-represented.
"The Westside Tenant Action Center performs an important service in giving tenants advice," he said.