Rising eviction crisis bringing calls for attorneys to volunteer

The American Bar Association and Legal Services Corp. are echoing the open call U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has made, asking attorneys around the country to volunteer their services in their communities to help the millions of individuals and families facing evictions now that the moratorium protection has ended.

In a letter to the legal community, Garland cited Census Bureau data which found more than 6 million American households behind on rent. Of those, about half believe they could be evicted in the next two months.

“Because evictions are subject to state laws and local regulations, there is no national ‘one size fits all’ solution,” Garland wrote. “But no matter where you live, lawyers and law students like you can apply your legal training and skills to help your community.”

In Indiana the need for help is particularly acute. A Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey released Aug. 25 estimates 42%  of adults in Hoosier households are not current on either their rent or mortgage and are very or somewhat likely to suffer an eviction or foreclosure.

According to the most recent data from the Indiana Supreme Court, 30,876 eviction petitions have been filed from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, 2021. For the first six months of the year, an average of 3,724 petitions were filed each month, reaching a total of 22,344 by June 30. For the months of July and August, 4,276 and 4,256 petitions were filed, respectively.

Scott Wylie, executive director of Pro Bono Indiana, said volunteer attorneys can best serve by representing tenants at the rent and damages hearings and by assisting with mediations between property owners and residents.

Hoosier lawyers interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities should visit https://probonoindiana.org/

ABA president Reginald Turner highlighted the strain on the legal system that could happen if evictions filings flood the courts.

“With volunteer actions, individual lawyers and law students can make an enormous difference in ensuring access to justice and minimizing the impact of evictions on individuals, families and communities, as well as landlords, during this critical time,” Turner said in a statement. “Join with state and local bar associations, volunteer with legal aid organizations and law school aid clinics, help state and local agencies with eviction diversion programs and work with struggling families and landlords. Every effort – large or small – will be meaningful.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had extended its moratorium on evictions to Oct. 3 after Congress failed to provide a remedy to struggling tenants. However, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the order. In a per curiam decision, the six conservative justices found the CDC had exceeded its authority and any further protections against evictions must be enacted by Congress.

As Wylie pointed out, there are no longer any limits on filing eviction petitions or moving forward with ejection proceedings.

The removal portion of the eviction process moves very weekly. Wylie said the court hearings are typically scheduled a week to 10 days after the petition is filed.

Volunteer attorneys, he said, would be most helpful in the rent and damages hearings that follow about a month after the actual eviction proceedings. Tenants need representation to ensure they are only charged what they legitimately owe and are not taken advantage of by being saddled with extraneous costs.

Through the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, Congress has allocated $46.5 billion for rental assistance but the funds have been slow to get distributed. According to the U.S. Treasury, just 11% of the money had been spent through mid-August.

Wylie said the money to help Hoosier tenants is experiencing a log jam as state and local governments work through the applications and send out the funds.

Compounding the situation is the number of tenants who claim they did not know the money was available. Based on anecdotal evidence, Wiley estimated more than 50% of the people in Indiana who are seeking help to avoid an eviction say they were unaware of the rental assistance program.

From his work in Evansville, Wylie speculated many of the people who have no knowledge of the help available are those who have not had to access public assistance before. Prior to the economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, these Hoosiers were able to provide for themselves and their families.

Now, not only are they struggling to regain their income but they are also going to be losing the enhanced federal unemployment benefit that is scheduled to end Sept. 4. Wylie said losing the jobless benefits that provide up to an extra $300 a week at exactly the same time as the eviction moratorium ends will exacerbate the hardships on some Hoosiers.

Ronald Flagg, Legal Services Corp. president, underscored the need to lawyers to help despite the programs implemented to help tenants stay in their homes.

“America’s legal aid providers are key to resolving the eviction crisis. None of the initiatives to address the crisis — the eviction moratoria, eviction diversion programs, or distribution of rental assistance — are self-executing,” Flagg said in a statement. “The success of those initiatives requires assistance to ensure that the benefits Congress, state and local governments intend to distribute in fact reach the tenants and landlords who are the intended beneficiaries. Legal aid programs provide that assistance.”

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