Good Apple Awards: Every tenant has a story to share, by Alan Dugger

Throughout October, Nebraska Appleseed is celebrating the outstanding contributions of individuals and organizations standing up for justice and opportunity for all as part of the 2020 Good Apple Awards. 

During #celebrateprobono week, we’re proud to spotlight the Tenant Assistance Project, a collaborative effort between the City of Lincoln, the Nebraska State Bar Association, and community organizations to assist those made vulnerable by housing insecurity.

We’re proud to share this guest blog post from Alan Dugger, a law student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law, a law clerk with the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, and a volunteer with the Tenant Assistance Project.

Tenant Assistance Project (TAP)

From left to right: Abby Kuntz (Legal Aid of Nebraska), Sarah O’Neill (UNL Civil Clinic), Alan Dugger, Tessa Lengeling (UNL Civil Clinic) and Josh Lottman (Lincoln Commission on Human Rights Housing Rights).

 

Evictions are what happens when human beings fall through the cracks of society. They are never about simply failing to pay the rent. They are never about a failure of personal responsibility. We at the Tenant Assistance Project (TAP) have helped hundreds of tenants avoid eviction since our inception in March, and every single one has a different story to tell. Many have simply lost their source of income and never found a way to stay afloat. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, any crisis – from an injury to loss of transportation to loss of child care – can lead to job loss. Many simply face an unexpected bill. Most Americans have less than $1,000 on hand to pay unexpected expenses. Some have uninhabitable homes and no way to find a remedy from their landlords. Others struggle with their landlords to find reasonable accommodations for disability.

All of these can and do lead to eviction. Eviction destroys community bonds and breaks neighborhoods apart. It leads to depressed economic outcomes for families and worse educational outcomes for children. Evictions haunt the public records of evicted tenants, leading to an inability to find housing and ineligibility for government housing benefits. One eviction kicks off a cycle of eviction, often ending in homelessness. These problems were evident long before COVID-19, but the crisis has expanded all of these cracks. Job loss due to economic depression and furloughs are common. Poverty and disability are often comorbid conditions, and individuals at high-risk of suffering from COVID are being removed from their homes when they should be sheltering in place.

When we formed TAP, nearly every eviction filing in Lancaster County that we prepared to defend against was unlawful in some form. Eviction proceedings can be unlawful in many ways: by simply failing to accurately state why the landlord should be allowed to evict or who the parties to these cases are; by unlawfully misleading the tenant on how to avoid eviction or giving too short a time period to do so; or in some cases, by never actually serving the tenants with a summons or notice of default. Through continued advocacy on behalf of tenants, we’ve managed to correct some of these practices, but many filings are unlawful still. Without an advocate at court, a tenant is helpless to assert their rights, especially in landlord-tenant court’s rapid-fire, almost mechanical, cattle-call setting. With an advocate, tenants avoid eviction and can safely relocate in almost all cases.

It is hard to say what the long-term vision for the Tenant Assistance Project looks like; our mission is largely triage. With COVID cases spiking across the state and the possible end of federal eviction protections as we enter the long winter of 2021, the need for more advocates at court, and more volunteers to connect with tenants before their hearings, will be great.

Community members who wish to volunteer their time helping connect tenants with legal resources and support before their hearings may message us on Facebook, at the Lincoln Tenant Assistance Project or email Josh Lottman, Housing Rights Coordinator, at jmlottman@lincoln.ne.gov. Attorneys wishing to volunteer their time advocating for tenants at court should contact Laurel Heer-Dale, Director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project. She can be reached at lheerdale@nevlp.org.

 

To learn more about the Tenant Assistance Project, visit their Facebook page here.

If you are a tenant who is impacted by an eviction, contact Legal Aid of Nebraska for potential legal representation. You can call Legal Aid’s COVID-19 hotline at 1-844-268-5627, or submit an application for assistance at LawHelpNE.org.

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