February 2018 Bar Bulletin
This year, KCBA’s Housing Justice Project turns 20. The Housing Justice Project (HJP) is a tenant advocacy program based at the Maleng Regional Justice Center and the King County Courthouse. Every day KCBA’s experienced and remarkable staff work with volunteer attorneys and case assistants to help more than 2,000 low-income tenants facing eviction each year. The origin of HJP is unique and worth sharing.
In the late 1990s, tenant advocacy was provided by civil legal aid programs. In King County, Evergreen Legal Services handled the bulk of this work, funded mostly with federal dollars. During this time period, Congress enacted restrictions meant to create a path to zero federal funding for civil legal aid (which ultimately and fortunately did not occur).
These restrictions resulted in a restructuring of our civil legal aid system, and the Northwest Justice Project and Columbia Legal Services were created. The Northwest Justice Project’s focus was providing advocacy within the federal funding restrictions while Columbia Legal Services provided advocacy outside of federal funding restrictions.
As a result of the restructuring, the large and robust tenant advocacy unit previously housed at Evergreen was significantly diminished. A group of advocates from the newly formed Columbia Legal Services and Northwest Justice Project, along with others from the Legal Action Center and KCBA, came together to find a solution.
Initially, HJP began as a three-month pilot project, launching from the newly opened Regional Justice Center in Kent. The goal of this pilot was to assess whether a volunteer attorney-
based program could effectively address client needs and outcomes in the housing arena. The pilot was modeled on a similar program out of Rochester, N.Y., and was a mix of civil legal aid staff and volunteers.
Prior to the launch, a large number of low-income tenants were appearing at eviction hearings without representation or any information about their rights or the laws. During the pilot, about two-thirds of the individuals appearing qualified for representation and were able to obtain meaningful and effective advocacy. HJP was born.
As HJP was volunteer dependent, the program was initially based in downtown Seattle since this was where the bulk of attorneys in King County worked. In 1999, a two-year grant received by Columbia Legal Services allowed HJP to launch in south King County. HJP has gone through several configurations over the years, however it has continued to be based on the premise of using volunteer attorneys for representation. Additionally, KCBA and HJP have developed partnerships with a variety of schools, providing a steady stream of volunteer case assistants to work with the attorneys.
Over the past 20 years, the need for HJP’s services has continued to grow from a few hundred people accessing services to more than 2,000 low-income tenants and families being served each year. Today, the HJP program consists of a full-time managing attorney, two full-time staff attorneys, two full-time program coordinators and more than 350 volunteers. These volunteers conduct intakes, provide advice and counseling, negotiate payment plans, and appear in court on behalf of the clients.
The end result is that evictions are often avoided and tenancies preserved. When this is not possible, HJP volunteers can often get the amount owed reduced, provide more time for tenants to identify an alternative living situation, and ensure the mere fact that an eviction action was started will not harm the client in applying for replacement housing. Who are the tenants HJP represents? Let’s meet two.
A single woman, “Mary,” living with her elderly mother and her baby came to HJP. Mary had been unable to work for two months due to severe depression and fell behind in her rent payments. Her landlord served her with a notice to pay rent or vacate, and filed an eviction lawsuit. Mary came to HJP on the day of her eviction hearing.
Mary told her volunteer attorney that she was feeling better and had recently returned to work. Additionally, her employer had advanced her some money to put toward paying off her back rent. Mary wanted a payment plan to pay the back rent and to stay in her apartment. Her attorney was able to negotiate a payment plan with the landlord that allowed Mary, her infant and her mother to remain in her apartment as long as she continued to make payments on the back rent owed.
The landlord agreed to dismiss the eviction case as soon as Mary was current in her rent payments. Mary was also given the option of asking the court for an order preventing tenant-screening companies from reporting the eviction matter to prospective future landlords.
When a young Somalian refugee and single mother of four was given an eviction summons and complaint she could not read, her landlord told her it meant she had to move immediately. Frightened and unable to effectively communicate in English, except through her oldest child, an 11-year-old, she immediately began discarding her family’s belongings in order to vacate the premises. A friend told her to go to HJP.
At the HJP clinic, a Somali interpreter worked with the volunteer attorney and client to explain the situation. The client was able to explain that her rent was 100-percent subsidized through a Section 8 voucher and that she should not have any outstanding rent due as the landlord claimed. The client was tearful and relieved when her attorney explained that she did not need to move or get rid of her belongings while the eviction procedure was being litigated.
Over the course of the eviction process, the client was able to meet with her attorney and an interpreter to fight the eviction. The attorney was able to obtain Section 8 records. After determining that a change in the landlord’s billing practices, which had not been explained to the client, had caused unpaid utilities, the attorney was able to negotiate the reduction of hundreds of dollars in late fees and utilities as well as avoid eviction. The client and her four children were able to maintain their Section 8 subsidy, get and stay current on the utilities, and remain in their home.
These cases demonstrate the profound impact HJP makes every day, as well as the vital need for this program. Interested in getting involved or know someone who would be? Visit the KCBA webpage to volunteer and to learn more.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY HOUSING JUSTICE PROJECT! Thank you for 20 years of meaningful and much needed advocacy on behalf of our community.