29 Jan 2022
The University of Nebraska College of Law’s Tenant Assistance Project was one of a few anti-eviction programs highlighted by the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice during a nationwide Jan. 28 webinar.
The webinar featured appearances by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and several top officials from the White House and the Department of Justice.
In August, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling lifted a federal pandemic-based eviction moratorium, Garland issued a call to action for the legal community to help Americans who would be facing eviction.
“Law students and lawyers from across the country stepped up to take on cases and assisted their clients and communities at a time when our country needed it the most,” Garland said. “Today, our work is far from over, and making real the promise of equal justice under law remains our urgent and unfinished business.”
Nebraska Law was among 99 law schools in 35 states and Puerto Rico that immediately committed their law schools to the effort.
Third-year Nebraska Law student Rachel Tomlinson Dick joined the webinar to describe Nebraska’s Tenant Assistance Project, which grew significantly after the Attorney General’s Call to Action. In the last five months, law students have assisted more than 400 households and helped 98% of represented tenants avoid immediate orders of eviction.
The program has helped facilitate the distribution of nearly $9 million in federal rental assistance funds, she added. The State of Nebraska has been allotted $158 million in emergency rental assistance funds to assist low-income households that are unable to pay rent and utilities because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tenant Assistance Program benefits both renters and landlords by connecting tenants with the funds they need to cover unpaid rent.
“The Tenant Assistance Project, a partnership between the Law School and over 20 organizations, including the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer Project and Legal Aid of Nebraska, expanded from a small group of dedicated volunteers to a community of students engaged with a statewide effort to prevent mass evictions in our state,” Tomlinson Dick said. “Law students are taking a multi-prong strategy that includes conducting file review to identify at-risk tenants; making direct contact with every household with a pending eviction hearing to offer them emergency rental assistance and legal representation; preparing eviction defense packets for pro bono attorneys in every case, and in engaging in courthouse advocacy on the day of hearings.”
Other law schools recognized for their eviction prevention efforts included Rutgers University School of Law; New York University School of Law, in partnership with Fordham University School of Law; Wayne State University School of Law; Atlanta-area law schools; Wake Forest University School of Law; Washington, D.C.-area law schools led by Georgetown University School of Law; Duke Law School; and Boston University School of Law.
In all, more than 2,100 students dedicated more than 81,000 hours, serving 10,000 households, according to a tracking survey by Georgetown University Law Center Dean William Treanor and New York University School of Law Dean Trevor Morrison.
Earlier this year, the Association of American Law Schools recognized Nebraska Law Professor Ryan Sullivan with the 2022 Access to Justice award for his work with the Tenant Assistance Project, launched in April 2020 as the state’s first moratorium on evictions was set to expire.
A planned pilot project — in the works for the previous three years — had been set to launch that spring but had been put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic forced law classes to go remote. Sullivan checked the eviction docket one morning, went to the courthouse and offered to represent any tenant who appeared for an eviction hearing. He and alumna Mindy Rush Chapman began making regular appearances on behalf of tenants facing eviction. They enlisted the help of law students and local attorney volunteers to coordinate the effort. A student organization was formed to support the project.
In August 2021, after a year of success in Lancaster County, the project was expanded to include Douglas County. More than 100 Nebraska Law students, undergraduate students, Creighton University law students and attorneys have volunteered.
According to Sullivan, the program has helped keep more than 1,000 families in their homes and helped avert a spike in eviction filings seen in other locations. Even in cases where families were evicted, lawyers and law students were able to negotiate enough time for the tenants to find a new place to live.
“The impact that Professor Sullivan, our law students and everyone involved with the Tenant Assistance Project have had on our community is incredible,” said Richard Moberly, dean of Nebraska Law. “They are providing legal access to a group that would otherwise go without, and in the process they are improving the way eviction proceedings are handled in our state.”