By: Tamara Serwer Caldas, Deputy Director, AVLF
Exactly four years ago, AVLF staff began meeting with the State Court Administrator and Chief Clerk of the State Court of Fulton County to discuss the possibility of opening a “Self-Help Center” in Fulton County to address the needs of the thousands of individuals who come to the courthouse each year without counsel. Such Centers have developed in courthouses throughout the country and have a strong record of increasing both the public’s access to and understanding of the legal system, promoting fairness and decreasing court costs. In March 2011, the Fulton County State Court opened the doors of its Self-Help Center in TG-300 of the Fulton County Courthouse. In May 2011, AVLF hired Jennifer Hubbard to provide legal advice to tenants on a walk-in basis at the Center. By the end of this year, AVLF will have given assistance to more than 300 tenant families through this clinic. Below Jennifer describes her experience in this challenging position, where she works with people who face the imminent lost of their families’ shelter or other legal situations wherein the safety or economic stability of the household is at risk.
by: Jennifer Hubbard, Housing Clinic Attorney, AVLF
We all have problems. Whatever my problems may be, I’m not worried about returning home to find my life out on the street. My personal belongings, pictures, food, furniture, clothes – they will not have been carelessly thrown on the curb and picked over by God knows who, as if I, or they, don’t matter. When I place my key in the lock, it will turn. I’m not worried about an illegal eviction.
I have a right to stay in the home I have been leasing for the last two years. I won’t be surprised to hear that the landlord with whom I signed my lease, no longer owns the property. I won’t wonder whether the rental payments I have been making faithfully have been going towards the mortgage. I won’t worry about my family having to vacate our home, because it’s been sold at foreclosure and no one bothered to say a word to me. I know my rights under the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act enacted by President Obama.
Tomorrow morning, I will not be pleading with a stranger, who happens to be an attorney, to do something so that I can stay in my roach infested home, where the water doesn’t work, the toilet doesn’t flush, there’s mold growing on the wall, and the electricity is twice my rent; but I have no one and nothing and nowhere else to go. When I stop paying my rent, because the repairs the landlord promised me she would make for the last three months still aren’t done, I will not be facing an eviction warrant. I will not have seven days to figure out a way and a time to come to court to file my answer. I will not worry that the way I file my answer, if I file it at all, may mean the difference between me keeping my home and having to get out within two weeks. It may make the difference in whether the Judge even sees me and I get my day in court. But, I’m not worried about that because I know the law. I know my rights. I know I have to put things in writing. And I know that if the landlord tells me I don’t have to come to court, I need to show up anyway. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the clients sitting across from me every day in my office.
The Housing Advocacy and Resource Center was created in part to provide legal advice and counsel for tenants facing eviction. When I agreed to join the team at Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, I envisioned clients arriving with a clear legal issue, for which there would be a clear legal answer, and they would leave with a succinct and direct resolution. I should have known better, from experience, that the role would be much more encompassing. As an attorney, I cannot fix peoples’ problems and I cannot tell them what to do. My responsibility is to provide them with the tools to help them reach their ideal result, given their circumstances. While I can often advise clients as to how a lease provision might be interpreted under the law, or whether they can file a motion, and what the potential outcome(s) will be, or defining a term such as writ of possession; providing them with additional resources, helping them to think practically and strategically, is just as much part of my role. It is easy to take for granted that terms such as mediation, mediator, consent order, are not common knowledge and/or self-explanatory. I cannot assume that someone knows appropriate attire for court, how to address the Judge, or whether they have to agree with opposing counsel if they are proceeding pro se. Counseling clients at HARC has pushed me to think outside the box, while providing me with as much education as I hope to impart to my clients. It is true, we all have problems. Some problems are greater than others. It is also true, that we can choose to be a part of the problem or the solution. I hope the continued efforts of HARC will play a significant role in creating solutions.