With a big boost from what is possibly the largest influx of financial support it has ever received, the Indiana Bar Foundation is preparing to use a $13.1 million grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority to launch a series of initiatives to help guide Hoosiers facing housing problems through the civil legal system.
The programs and services – including kiosks where tenants and landlords can access self-help legal forms and legal navigators which will provide legal information to pro se litigants – have been in the bar foundation’s long-range plans for years but are now becoming reality thanks to the grant money. Moreover, the hope is the infrastructure built with the funds to address legal problems in housing will be able to be used in the future to assist Hoosiers with other civil legal needs.
“These ideas aren’t new but the idea that we can implement them as soon as we can is new,” said Charles Dunlap, bar foundation president and CEO. “We had a five-year plan and some of these things were down the road. … The game-changer for us is the funding is now available to do a lot of these things.”
The bar foundation is focused on getting the legal help for housing issues rolled out quickly and in all parts of the states.
Under the proposal submitted to the IHCDA, the bar foundation is targeting April 1, 2022, to have the legal services contracts in place with legal aid providers around the state and to have the initial legal navigators working. The kiosks are scheduled to be available in all 92 counties by the third quarter of 2022 while clinics are planned for each quarter and will offer information, legal advice, and assistance in completing rental assistance applications as well as entering the pre-eviction diversion program
“So that’s what’s so exciting for us. We’ve been dreaming for years and now we’re able to maybe fulfill some of those dreams with financial resources which is obviously what it takes to make it happen,” Dunlap continued. “But we’re really excited to get it underway and start to get some of these resources deployed.”
The two-year grant awarded to the bar foundation comes from the $291.76 million Indiana received in Emergency Rental Assistance 2 funding through the U.S. Treasury. States receiving the ERA2 money were allowed to funnel up to 10% of the federal funding to “housing stability services” which resulted in IHCDA offering $29.18 million in grants for such services as eviction prevention programs, mediation between landlords and tenants and housing counseling.
Only two Indiana nonprofits were awarded housing stability grants, according to IHCDA. Along with the bar foundation receiving $13.1 million for providing legal services, the Indiana Community Action Association, Inc. was awarded $15.4 million for housing counseling and case management services.
The grant dwarfs the nearly $8 million the bar foundation received from the $16.65 billion settlement Bank of America reached in 2014 with the federal government for financial fraud during the mortgage meltdown which led to the Great Recession.
Dunlap sees the potential that the network and services put in place to providing housing support could also be used to make available other kinds of civil legal assistance. The bar foundation’s plans for kiosks, clinics and legal navigator should be able to continue helping Hoosiers after the grant money is exhausted.
“This is primarily focused on housing and we’re excited to be able to help people with the current crisis,” Dunlap said. “But if we can do that at the same time we’re building infrastructure for civil legal assistance delivery after this particular funding source is gone and after this particular turns into a different one, that’s a real sign of progress, that’s a real sign of success. That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish.”
The kiosks and legal navigators included in the bar foundation’s proposal are being utilized in other states but will be new to Indiana’s legal aid community.
Dunlap envisions the two elements working together. The anticipated 200 kiosks set up around the state will primarily consist of a station or desk with computer with an internet connection and a printer. Likewise, the legal navigator will be available either remotely or on-site at courthouses and clinics to answer questions and point to additional resources.
Then, in practice, the self-represented party in a housing matter would download a self-help court form from the kiosk and, if a question about filling out or filing the document arose, the navigator would be available to provide some guidance.
“That the idea is that they would have somebody on the other end of the line wherever in Indiana that will be able to help walk them through it,” Dunlap said, emphasizing the navigators would only be offering legal information and not giving legal advice. “To the extent that (the pro se litigants) needed legal advice, and not just legal information, then they could also be paired up with either a pro bono attorney or a legal aid attorney or some other attorney within the state of Indiana in the network who would be able to assist them and actually provide legal advice that only attorneys can.”
The vision is that the legal navigators would be non-attorneys, possibly social workers or librarians, who would have specialized training. Under the IHCDA grant, they would dispense legal information such as educating tenants and landlords about the resources available as well as helping the individuals prepare for a hearing by giving guidance on the information and documents the judge will want.
Dunlap explained the kiosks and legal navigators will at least give Hoosiers the opportunity to get basic information and self-help resources.
“It’s still going to be a challenge. The demand still outstrips the resources from a legal advice perspective,” Dunlap said. “I don’t know that we are in the position to say everybody who wants a lawyer can have one but we want to at least have access to some legal resources even if it isn’t a full representation from a lawyer at this point.”