Consumer advocate Robert Gnaizda dies at 83

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Robert Gnaizda, an affordable housing and social justice advocate, died on July 11, according to the Greenlining Institute, an organization he co-founded. He was 83.

"Since the mid-1970s, Bob was a tireless leader who created community around a simple, shared and powerful vision to bring together grassroots community leaders from the African-American, Asian-American, Latino and disabled communities to both fight institutionalized discrimination and redlining and to proactively bring investments and opportunity into these communities," Debra Gore-Mann, Greenlining's president and CEO, said in a press release.

Robert Gnaizda

Gnaizda was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended Columbia University and Yale Law School. In addition to co-founding the Greenlining Institute, he co-founder two advocacy organizations, California Rural Legal Assistance and Public Advocates.

Gnaizda gave a unique answer to his alumni newspaper when asked in 2018 about his drive to support social justice.

"For me, I think boredom [laughs]. I was a tax attorney and the work didn't interest me much," he said. "I decided to go to Mississippi in early 1965, and there I realized that I had some natural talents. There was a lot of hope at that time that hundreds of years of injustices could be cured with attention, and by revolting against the southern apartheid system — that's what got me involved. I ended up playing a role in the Congressional hearings that led to the Voting Rights Act."

Gnaizda had an appetite and aptitude for challenging large institutions, his son Matt Gnaizda noted.

"Even though he saw injustice everywhere, he was particularly aggrieved by institutions that actively worked to reduce access for certain groups of people,” he said. “For this reason, the active redlining by banks became his championed cause. He delighted in taking on powerful banking institutions with his unique 1-2-3 punch of legal, media, and government pressure."

In the mid-'70s, during Jerry Brown's first term as California's governor, Gnaizda was the state's health director and chief deputy secretary for health, welfare and prisons. Around that time, he co-founded Public Advocates, one of the first public-interest law firms, and he acted as general counsel for the National Asian American Coalition.

It was during this period in Brown administration that Gnaizda became disillusioned, which drove his work in the financial and mortgage sectors, his son said.

He approached them "thinking that if you had power or a direct line to power you could instigate change, but he realized the forces of politics and government can make change slow or impossible," Matt Gnaizda added.

While taking on big companies, as well as the government, Gnaizda had a different approach from the other attorneys at Public Advocates, said Anthony Kline, another co-founder of the firm.

Gnaizda considered going to court a waste of time and money because of the deep pockets those entities had. Rather, "Bob preferred to persuade cases," said Kline, who is currently presiding justice of California's 1st District Court of Appeal.

Gnaizda would look to negotiate with large banks that needed government approval for their mergers, filing complaints on fair lending and redlining grounds as a delaying tactic.

But Gnaizda did not intimidate people, nor did he try to. His attitude was "we're going to fight you and the fight is going to become public," said Kline, who added that the potential negative publicity was often enough to bring them to the table.

Gnaizda was willing to take on his former boss, Gov. Brown, in a case involving diversion of settlement proceeds the state received from post-housing-crisis lawsuits.

"Bob Gnaizda was a social justice creative genius," said Orson Aguilar, who led Greenlining after Gnaizda retired.

"He mixed his vast legal skills with a creative organizing approach that often mixed baseball statistics with current and historic events. He always sought to uplift leaders of color and never backed away from talking about race," Aguilar said in Greenlining's press release.

"Throughout his career, Bob would always mentor young leaders, especially men and women of color, and encourage them to think outside the box,” his son Matt said. “The three organizations he co-founded continue to carry on his legacy of fighting for underserved communities."

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Obituaries Affordable housing Racial Bias Redlining Under-served populations California