April 25, 2017

Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP): Serving Columbus’ Underserved Tenants

by Dianna Parker Howie

Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness—this is eviction’s fallout. Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty. (Excerpt from Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City)

Every year, 19,000 evictions are filed in Columbus. On an average morning in Franklin County Municipal Courtroom 11A, dozens of tenants—many flanked by small children—sit in overcrowded rows while waiting for their names to be called. In most cases, a magistrate asks the unrepresented tenant four questions and within two minutes, he or she explains that a “red tag” will be posted at the rental unit, at which point the family will have five days to remove all of their earthly belongings or risk a set-out. Although efficient, this process—made possible because the vast majority of tenants attend their hearings without counsel—reveals a dramatic justice gap facing vulnerable Columbus residents.

This gap is uniquely wide in Central Ohio. In 2014, Franklin County had one eviction filing for every 9.8 rental households, comparable to New York City, which saw one eviction filing for every 10.1 rental households. While NYC saw one successful eviction set-out per 93 rental households, Franklin County experienced triple that rate at one for every 30 households. This data is alarming because, as Matthew Desmond describes in the opening quote, housing is vital to ensuring stability for low-income individuals. Maintaining consistent shelter has the potential to impact mental health, safety, employment, and even education and custody of children.

Addressing the eviction crisis in Columbus has become a community-wide initiative. The newly created Municipal Court Self-Represented Resource Center houses an abundance of informational materials for landlords and tenants, and both the Court’s mediation department and Community Mediation Services (CMS) provide quality eviction mediation services every day. Nonetheless, even with CMS serving more than 850 tenants in 2016, existing resources cannot meet the need. Center staff and mediators are unable to give legal advice to tenants who may have unrealized legal defenses that could dramatically impact their case outcomes.

Desmond asserts in his book that “[e]stablishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court would be a cost-effective measure that would prevent homelessness, decrease evictions and give poor families a fair shake.” The Legal Aid Society of Columbus (LASC) allocates staff to its eviction defense work, but the four-person housing team and its Volunteer Resource Center pro bono referral program only made a small dent in evictions in 2016, collectively providing some level of assistance to an average of about three (out of about 75) families facing eviction every day.

The good news is that Columbus possesses some uniquely positive attributes: a strong pro bono spirit promoted by the Ohio Supreme Court and implemented by the local bar, an infrastructure and knowledge base housed at LASC and a growing pool of interested stakeholders outside the legal community who are determined to address this problem.

Enter the new Legal Aid Society of Columbus (LASC) Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP). With generous financial support from the Ohio State Bar Foundation, The Columbus Foundation and PNC Bank, LASC launched this ground-breaking clinic in March 2017.

TAP features two key components: (a) Daily onsite presence at eviction court of a dedicated staff attorney who can analyze cases, advise tenants and mentor attorney volunteers; and (b) non-attorney volunteers and resource specialists who can help process tenants and connect landlords and tenants with emergency funds that can bring the tenant current in rent and save the tenancy. One of the most important aspects of TAP is its screening, as there is no question that many landlords are dutifully following the law. Cases in which the tenant lacks any defense will be referred for non-TAP mediation services.

Volunteers will be critical to TAP’s success, and fortunately the Columbus legal community is rising to the challenge. The first six TAP Firm Leaders—Porter Wright, Bricker & Eckler, Squire Patton Boggs, Dinsmore & Shohl, Taft Stettinius and Hollister, and Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter—have stepped to the forefront of the initiative. Additional TAP Supporters, including Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease, Thompson Hine, Nationwide Insurance and the Moritz Civil Legal Clinic, will also staff clinics throughout the year. The lists continue to grow, with the goal of creating the largest and most impactful Franklin County pro bono project to date.

Through our legal community’s combined efforts to face this challenge, individual attorneys should find the project manageable. Lawyers will provide unbundled legal services in discrete, three-hour clinic increments. Limited scope representation, permitted by Ohio Professional Conduct Rule 1.2(C), is ideal for eviction cases, which bifurcate possession and damages claims. TAP volunteers can represent a client exclusively at the eviction hearing, which implicates the tenant’s most immediate concern of retaining stable housing. LASC will provide malpractice coverage and training; and as an Ohio Supreme Court-recognized sponsor, we can administer pro bono CLE credit and offer opportunities for corporate status-only and emeritus attorneys.

All volunteers will benefit from an onsite LASC housing attorney who will flag legal defenses, review settlement agreements and discuss case strategy. Nonetheless, delving into an unfamiliar practice area can be intimidating, so we asked a few attorneys who have recently handled pro bono eviction referrals to comment on the experience.

Reed Sirak, a 2015 graduate and litigation associate at Squire Patton Boggs, describes his first eviction case: “I had zero landlord-tenant experience when I first started volunteering but I knew that the people that the Tenant Advocacy Project serves really need help. The attorneys at LASC are incredibly good at educating attorneys about the various legal defenses that exist in these cases and they are always available to answer any questions that you may have.”

2016 law graduate Kevin Ticknor of Porter Wright also just recently completed his first eviction, which he and his co-counsel Jared Klaus won after a contested hearing: “As a first-year attorney, representing a client in an eviction proceeding was a great way to get courtroom experience. While I was unfamiliar with this area of law, I was able to quickly get a workable understanding of landlord-tenant law from the materials provided by LASC.”

The project’s scope is too large to rely solely on Firm Leaders like Squire and Porter. Fortunately, smaller firms and sole practitioners are well-suited for evictions. One such attorney, Orsolya Hamar-Hilt of Bloomfield & Kempf, has represented an impressive seven tenants in the past year. The Moritz Civil Law clinic will also help ease the burden by enlisting legal interns who will not only provide vital services but, also learn important practice skills.

When tenants are represented, their case outcomes are dramatically better. With attorneys by their sides, clients can stand up to bullying landlords, expose unlawful practices and simply achieve negotiated resolutions that do not suffer from the tenant’s lack of legal knowledge. As more tenants assert their rights, courts can address systematic issues, including dangerous code violations, persistent unauthorized practice of law and egregious retaliatory behavior.

Beyond improved outcomes, tenants who have representation are often empowered and deeply appreciative. One of volunteer attorney Barry Epstein’s nine former eviction clients wrote that Barry “helped my family from being very close to homelessness,” and the satisfaction survey from Sirak’s recent client repeatedly referred to him as “Superman.” Another tenant recently summed up the experience of having an attorney as “feeling like I have a voice that will be heard.” Kegler Brown’s Jason Beehler has represented eleven low-income tenants referred by LASC since 2011. He recalls one particularly memorable woman who was being evicted for violating her landlord’s pet policy, even though she had removed the pet: “She really didn’t want to leave her apartment. Her grandkids lived with her, and it was the first time they were doing well in school. We were successful in defeating the eviction, and [the client] told me several times that it was the first time she felt like somebody was willing to fight for her.”

Not every day in an attorney’s life will be uplifting and fulfilling, but successfully representing a tenant can serve as a reminder of why many of us went to law school: to help people. To Ticknor “[i]t was a great feeling to know that I had helped keep a family in their home,” and for Hamar-Hilt, it is “immediate gratification.” Fortunately, our supporters already appreciate the importance of TAP. As James Abram explains, “Taft and its Columbus office are committed to ensuring that those who cannot afford access to the legal system in central Ohio are served. Not only are we pleased to participate in this important LASC initiative; but participation permits our attorneys to have a real impact on this under-served population.”

If successful, the Tenant Advocacy Project will shrink the justice gap in Columbus so that we no longer lead the state in eviction filings, so that fewer families face the devastating experience of homelessness and so that someday, an average morning in Courtroom 11A will see empty rows and fewer frightened tenants wondering what steps they need to take to keep their homes.

The TAP program will fulfill LASC’s mission of pursuing justice and changing lives, but we cannot do this work alone. To join the program, contact Pro Bono Team Managing Attorney Dianna Howie at dhowie@columbuslegalaid.org.

Spring 2017 CBLQ

This article is a part of the Spring 2017 issue of Columbus Bar Lawyers Quarterly. Click here to read the full publication.


To join the program, contact Pro Bono Team Managing Attorney Dianna Howie at dhowie@columbuslegalaid.org.