The one year-mark of the Covid-19 shutdown that forced BC Law to fundamentally change its operations came and went last week. This pandemic-focused world has created realities that none of us could have ever predicted, simultaneously shutting doors and forcing new opportunities to emerge in their wake. The only thing that has remained constant over the past year is the uncertainty of what the near-future will bring.
BC Law has done its best to adapt. A unique example of this is the emergence of the Covid Relief Housing Clinic earlier this semester. What began as a Summer 2020 effort to help people in the greater Boston area receive unemployment benefits has transformed to a semester-long clinic opportunity, addressing urgent legal issues regarding housing and upholding the original goal to meet the timely legal needs of those within our community.
I spoke with Professor Ana Rivera, who runs the clinic, to discuss the creation and utilization of this new addition to BC Law’s Experiential Learning Center.
1. When and how did the idea emerge for this clinic?
The idea for a clinic focused exclusively on housing came to me in the fall 2020, when the federal and local moratoria on evictions were scheduled to expire. There was a great concern that the number of eviction matters would spike exponentially, as workers in the retail, hotel, and restaurant industries continued to struggle either to find new work or to receive unemployment insurance benefits. It seemed right from a social justice perspective to divert resources to this particular problem. I contacted WATCH CDC, a family, housing, and adult education advocacy organization in Waltham, MA, with which our Civil Litigation Clinic has collaborated in the past, and proposed a partnership with BC Law to identify and provide legal assistance to Waltham tenants facing housing insecurity as a result of Covid-19. Having such an intimate relationship with tenants in Waltham, WATCH, through its executive director Daria Gere, was acutely aware of the need and embraced the opportunity. With the support of Professors Judy McMorrow and Renee Jones, the idea was realized.
2. I understand that this began as a summer opportunity in 2020. Why have you chosen to extend it to a full-time opportunity for students?
Under the umbrella of the BC Law’s Covid Relief Legal Services program, over the summer Professor Alan Minuskin and I supervised 8 BC law students helping workers unemployed due to Covid-19 apply for and receive unemployment insurance benefits. At the time, the state moratorium on evictions was in place, and stalled income benefits was the more pressing problem. Once the Massachusetts eviction moratorium expired later in the fall, it was an easy decision to propose dedicating a spring 2021 clinic to eviction defense.
3. What are the main objectives or the main role of students?
The students, Bronwyn Lloyd, Inaara Tajuddin, Roma Gujarathi, and Sam Bernstein are all well-versed now in the new protections afforded to Massachusetts tenants – put in place in response to Covid-19. Their role is to intervene in eviction matters primarily based on claims of non-payment of rent with the goal of negotiating with landlords, or their counsel, toward resolution. Some landlords need to be reminded of the protections in place. In one recent case a landlord was aggressively seeking an eviction and our students responded by filing papers and appearing at a hearing in Waltham District Court, with great success for the client who was deemed, after an evidentiary hearing, to be covered by the CDC moratorium. In other cases, both the landlords and the tenants need to be redirected to the fairly robust rental assistance programs recently expanded due to Covid-19. Once a tenant applies for rental assistance, some of the cases naturally resolve. Recently, we have become aware of an increasing number of landlords harassing Waltham tenants who are unable to pay rent. To avoid the danger that these tenants may become intimidated enough to simply move out and join family and friends in tight quarters (and which may have the affect of continuing the spread of Covid-19), we are now engaging directly with these landlords. In addition, the students have begun an outreach and education campaign in the Waltham community. They have created and distributed flyers describing the protections tenants have in light of Covid-19 and are planning a live Zoom to Youtube event to be broadcasted to the clients of WATCH. With direct representation and education and outreach, the students will have had a significant impact in the Waltham community.
4. What have been the greatest struggles in the work of this clinic?
One challenge has been navigating the court system in the context of new procedures and protections in eviction matters. With little to no binding precedent, judges and courts have been interpreting the protections for tenants in different ways, with different results. For this reason, no matter how strong the facts of some of the cases, there remains an uncomfortable level of uncertainty in the expected outcomes. Moreover, with court procedures and rules changing frequently as the court system reopens, we’ve had to be nimble to stay abreast of the changing expectations and obligations for counsel and litigants. Finally, and not exclusive to this clinic, representing clients and appearing in court remotely presents challenges in client interactions and in the way our clients have access to and participate in the justice system.
5. Why do you think students were drawn to the work of the clinic?
As a group, the students were drawn by a desire to help mitigate the housing crisis caused by the pandemic. It’s gratifying to think that, years down the line, they’ll look back and recollect their contributions to the Waltham community during this chaotic and surreal time. They were also drawn to the opportunity to practice and hone foundational lawyering skills: client interviewing and counseling, case planning and theory development, negotiation, oral advocacy, and professionalism. Finally, in light of our partnership with WATCH, the students have experienced the rewards of collaborating with a community organization to address systemic housing inequities. Of the four students, two joined the clinic with prior community service experience.
6. Where do you see the clinic going in the future? How could it expand or change as the presence of covid in our country and communities change?
The partnership with WATCH and the housing clinic itself is slated to run through the end of the spring 2021 semester. In the fall 2021, Professor Alan Minuskin will continue representing tenants within the broader scope of the Civil Litigation Clinic. The impact that Covid-19 has had on housing stability, especially for low income tenants, will continue for at least the rest of the year and likely longer, as the state continues to struggle with the twin challenges of vaccinating as many people as possible and safely reopening all aspects of our economy.
7. What is your greatest hope for the clinic as it is now?
My hope is that we’re able to touch and help as many tenants as possible during this semester, either through direct representation or through education and outreach efforts. The stress and fear associated with an eviction are very high even in normal times, as the effects of an eviction can lead to a runaway downward spiral and reverberate within a family for years. Along with other legal, social work, and housing advocates, we’re hoping to provide much-needed reassurance, serve as a backstop to aggressive and unlawful landlord conduct, and ultimately, help the Waltham tenants we meet find a path toward preserving their housing stability.
Devon Sanders is a second-year student at BC Law, and vice president of the Impact blog. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.