Article and photographs by: Eric Gonzalez Alfaro, Equal Justice Coalition Director
King County’s Housing Justice Project (HJP) is an emergency eviction defense clinic. The clinic has offices in the King County Superior Courthouse in downtown Seattle as well as the Kent Maleng Regional Justice Center. Both offices are located just down the hall from the ex parte courtroom where eviction show cause hearings take place. The location of the clinics gives HJP the unique ability to help low income tenants at risk of eviction on the day of their hearing.
HJP is a part of the King County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Services Division. The program began in October of 1997, when Aurora Martin, now Executive Director of Columbia Legal Services, and Steve Frederickson, Northwest Justice Project Advocacy Coordinator, sought to create an outlet for low-income tenants to assert their legal rights. Today, the program continues to provide high quality legal services, with increased staffing and volunteer attorney capacity, helping protect housing for over 4,000 people each year.
According to 2-1-1, King County’s referral program, requests for help with housing related legal issues was among the top requested services. Between 2008 and 2013, requests for help with a housing issue increased by 34 percent.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in foreclosure related eviction proceedings in recent years. The foreclosure crisis is impacting not just home owners, renters are being displaced as well,” said Rory O’Sullivan, HJP Managing Attorney.
Fortunately, the King County Bar Association has long championed an ethos of service amongst its voluntary bar members, and they too understand the grave situations many low-income people face with regard to limited affordable, accessible and safe housing options.
“We have long valued pro bono service and we encourage our members to engage in their communities. We believe that everyone deserves an equal opportunity to secure meaningful and just legal representation – not just those who can afford it,” said Andy Prazuch, Executive Director of the King County Bar Association.
King County’s HJP has been averaging more than 300 client visits per month over the past several months. HJP’s attorneys help prevent wrongful evictions, negotiate settlements that allow tenants to remain housed, and even in cases where the tenant ends up needing to move, the HJP attorneys often negotiate settlements that give the tenant the additional time he or she needs to find a new place to live.
But even with an energetic five person staff and a more than 100 dedicated volunteer attorneys, HJP is still not able to assist everyone who comes to the clinic looking for help, which is why HJP is always looking for more volunteers. Attorneys can commit to as little as one four-hour shift per month for a year. In return, the volunteer ensures representation for people at one of the toughest junctures of their life.
O’Sullivan recalls the time Bilan, a young Somali-American woman, came to the Housing Justice Project in Kent holding a notice to pay rent or vacate that her Somali speaking father had received (a pseudonym is used here to protect the family’s identity). She was frustrated and deeply alarmed; her father had never failed to pay rent. After some research, HJP determined that their home had been sold at a foreclosure sale before they started renting it, but the family was never informed.
The property was purchased by an investor working for a hedge fund, and then transferred to another investor in a multiple property transaction. However, even while the family had never been informed about the second transfer, the previous owner continued to accept rental payments.
Because of the complexity of the second property transaction, a dispute arose about whether the family had paid their security deposit and whether the deposit had been properly transferred to the new owner. After several weeks of negotiation and communication with the previous owner and the new owner, the deposit was transferred to the new owner and the case was resolved.
HJP’s services ensured that this new American family did not end up with an eviction on their record and more importantly: they were able to stay in their home.
To help families like Bilan’s, sign up to volunteer at http://www.kcba.org/pbs/volunteers.aspx and encourage others to join you.