Georgetown Law Helps Lead National Law School Response to Eviction Crisis
February 22, 2022
Late last summer, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a call to action. Lawyers and law students were urgently needed, he said, to help respond to a looming eviction crisis in the United States.
“As federal and local eviction moratoriums expire around the country, eviction filings are expected to spike to roughly double their pre-pandemic levels,” wrote Garland in an open letter to the legal community. “According to a recent Census Bureau survey, over six million American households report that they are behind on rent. Over three million households that are behind on rental payments believe they may be evicted in the next two months. The impact of evictions on these families would be devastating.”
Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor and Dean Trevor Morrison of New York University School of Law took the lead in organizing the program, reaching out to counterparts at other law schools right away and hoping they might convince a few others to join them.
Within two days, 44 law school deans had signed on to a letter of support.
And, by the end of 2021, a total of 99 U.S. law schools had participated in some way – with some 2,100 law students around the country contributing more than 81,000 hours to serve at least 10,000 households in danger of eviction.
At a recent event hosted by the White House and the Department of Justice highlighting the initiative, Treanor said he was overwhelmed by the response from the law school community, but at the same time he was not surprised.
“As deans charged with training the next generation of lawyers, we have an obligation to use our resources to work towards a more just society,” said Treanor.
CLINIC “CHECK-UPS” HELP KEEP FAMILIES HOUSED
At Georgetown Law, there were multiple opportunities for students to participate in this effort. One was through the school’s Health Justice Alliance Law Clinic, part of a pioneering partnership between Georgetown’s Law and Medical centers. Law students in the clinic work with clients to resolve legal issues affecting health and wellbeing – a major one being access to safe housing.
The clinic’s students carried out comprehensive “public benefits check-ups” on all the clients they served, in order to ensure they were enrolled in programs for which they were eligible and to inform them about additional resources that could proactively promote their financial and housing stability and prevent later evictions.
Meng Ding (L’22) said that as part of a team of two law students and one medical student, she worked with three families. One was already in a precarious situation, having gone through an eviction and a stint in a shelter in the past. Now, with support from housing vouchers, they were in their own home, but when the breadwinner father lost his job in the pandemic, they fell behind on their utility bills. They feared getting evicted again.
Ding and her clinic team identified a Washington, D.C. emergency pandemic housing relief program that might help, and worked with their clients to complete the online application. “It was a process!” she said, of gathering all the necessary information and navigating the website. The students were thrilled when their clients’ application for financial assistance was approved.
Over the course of the fall semester, the clinic worked directly with more than 20 families to strengthen their financial and housing security, said clinic director Professor Yael Cannon. They also developed eviction prevention resources for families served by MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s Division of Community Pediatrics. The clinic trained healthcare providers on tenants’ legal rights and local emergency resources for rental assistance, then provided the healthcare team with flyers with this information that were distributed to some 500 families.
“Access to safe and affordable housing is always an issue in D.C., and during this pandemic, it became more urgent than ever,” said Cannon. “Evictions harm families in many ways, including profound health and mental health outcomes. A tsunami of evictions would result in a public health crisis layered over the existing one. Our students have been working hard to promote the financial and housing security of families so they can remain housed here in our city.”
An additional 14 Law Center students took part in the Rising for Justice Housing Advocacy and Litigation Clinic, which includes students from other D.C.-area law schools as well. Their efforts helped prevent two dozen scheduled evictions from taking place.
VOLUNTEERING TIME AND EXPERTISE
Thirty Georgetown Law students dedicated weekend time to volunteering at pop-up enrollment clinics around the city for STAY DC, a local emergency housing assistance program that was part of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance fund. Quincey Wilson (C’20, L’23) stood outside a supermarket one day, handing out flyers advertising the clinics.
“I was amazed that so many people did not know about the initiative,” said Wilson. “It was comforting to know that the small part I played that day potentially helped many people get the assistance they needed.”
Shiva Sethi (L’24) helped walk people through the complex STAY DC application process, which reminded him of work he’d done in a past job at an antipoverty nonprofit.
“We regularly fought administrative barriers like these kinds of forms, [which] make it hard – if not impossible – for people to get the assistance that they need,” said Sethi. “It really drove home the importance of folks like us doing this kind of work.”
THE WORK CONTINUES
Georgetown Law clinics and students will continue to work with Washington, D.C. residents facing housing crises. And, as Treanor said in his remarks, some of the law students who took part in this nationwide effort may even incorporate their achievements into their plans for the future.
“We’ve heard that for many students, this experience was transformative, that it’s led them to think that their career as lawyers should be responding to the housing crisis. And we’ve heard from others… that this would be a meaningful and significant pro bono activity,” said Treanor.
Ding is among them. She plans to work in corporate law at a Washington, D.C. firm after she graduates this spring, but is glad to know the firm has a strong pro bono program, and hopes to be able to build on what she learned in the Health Justice Alliance law clinic to work with low-income families.
“This clinic really gave me a very good place to start,” she said. “I think our clients are very brave.”
Watch the White House/Department of Justice Law School Eviction Prevention convening:
Breanna de Vera (L’24) contributed to this article.