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Pro bono task force fighting for tenants

Even before COVID-19 hit, housing prices in Charlotte had been on the rise for years and wages, particularly those of low-income individuals, had failed to keep pace. The economic fallout caused by the pandemic has only made the situation more dire for many families.

Managing the thousands of eviction petitions signed in Mecklenburg County every year is thus quite a challenge for Legal Aid of North Carolina-Charlotte and the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. So in response, Charlotte Triage Task Force, a collaborative pro bono effort spearheaded by McGuireWoods in 2018, has stepped up to assist in providing legal representation to people who have been evicted.

When landlords start posting eviction notices, tenants who are unable to make lease payments are likely unable to afford legal counsel to help guide them through the process. Charlotte Triage, the offspring of a similar program pioneered in 2017 by Scott Oostdyk of McGuireWoods’ Richmond, Virginia, office, aims to help those hit hardest by the pandemic by providing access to that counsel.

Oostdyk said that the idea of bringing the program to Charlotte was sparked by his review of a book detailing the financial struggles of families across the country, including those in Charlotte.

“It confirmed the approach we were taking in Richmond—that clients have to be defended vigorously against unwarranted eviction,” Oostdyk said.

The partnership between McGuireWoods, Bank of America, Moore & Van Allen, Wells Fargo, Duke Energy, and Husqvarna has brought together dozens of law firms and corporate legal department leaders to raise awareness of unmet legal needs in the community. Through a case referral system, it allows Legal Aid and CCLA to outsource cases to private-practice and in-house attorneys.

Angie Zimmern of McGuireWoods co-chairs the task force, a group of pro bono leaders who met in 2018 to assess the feasibility of a joint effort to assist low-income tenants, just 3 percent of whom have legal representation. Approximately 200 attorneys volunteered for the program. Today, more than 400 volunteers have been trained in six focus areas, including housing eviction defense, and have served more than 350 clients.

Zimmern works with firms’ “champions”—advocates who recruit and coordinate volunteers for focus areas—to represent clients in landlord-tenant proceedings, educate them about their legal rights and resources, and negotiate on their behalf.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a temporary eviction moratorium that extends through December, but not every tenant is covered under the order, and not every court has complied with the guidance. Although many non-essential cases and hearings have been postponed for at least 30 days, the threat of eviction isn’t going away. Some Triage clients are fighting to keep their security deposits, but others are fighting to simply keep a roof over their heads.

“There was an acute need before the pandemic, which has only worsened and will be even worse when eviction proceedings return in full force,” Zimmern said.

Nader Raja is the co-champion of Moore and Van Allen’s Triage housing eviction defense team. He said that the moratorium, while not a panacea for eviction issues, presents an opportunity for Triage attorneys to help tenants understand the moratorium and how to invoke its protections. Counseling is available for all phases of the eviction process, but finding an amicable solution between landlord and tenant to either keep the tenant in the property or negotiate an early lease termination is preferable.

Raja said the situation leaves tenants and landlords alike in a difficult position, but evictions, which are public record, can make it burdensome for tenants to find new housing. They’re also likely to lose their housing subsidy.

“This has ravaged the community, and the project recognizes that there are severe collateral consequences of eviction,” Raja said.

At Bank of America, Greg Volk leads the housing eviction defense team. He said the affordable housing crisis is the result of long-term inequality and economic opportunity, an issue faced disproportionately by minority residents. The situation has been compounded by COVID-19, which also affects minorities and other low-income communities disproportionately.

Volk noted that state law requires landlords to follow a strict summary ejectment process, and the goal in eviction cases is to give clients time to either come to an agreement with their landlords or to prepare an effective defense.

Tommy Holderness, a Legal Aid attorney in Charlotte, said that involving Bank of America and other volunteers has been beneficial. Every year, more than 28,000 eviction petitions are signed, and Legal Aid can take only a few hundred.

“I think [Charlotte Triage] has kind of heightened awareness … and it’s made my job a little easier,” Holderness said. “Just to be able to go through the champions, and they typically can get cases placed. They have placed a ton of cases for us.”

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