There are no windows in the Omaha Douglas Civic Center’s courtroom 20. Four days a week starting at 9 a.m., a judge quickly shuffles through small claims cases, including evictions, like an auctioneer. It’s hard to hear the judge’s words through a mask, so security makes sure things stay quiet.
Many of the defendants have never been here before and rarely do they have an attorney by their side. They’re told where to be and handed judgements with little fanfare. For eviction cases, that’s typically meant not having a home to go back to that afternoon — a reality faced by about 5,000 people in Douglas County each year.
Erin Feichtinger, a policy advocate for Together, a nonprofit focused on ending hunger and homelessness in Omaha and surrounding communities, often live tweets the proceedings. In a former role, she researched capital punishment, reading death row inmates’ last words. Now she watches ill-equipped defendants lose their homes, sometimes in a matter of minutes.
“Eviction work is by far and away the most depressing thing I've ever dealt with,” Feichtinger said.
That used to be the status quo. But there’s a new team in courtroom 20 disrupting the flow.
This fall, Douglas County and the City of Omaha set aside a combined $460,000 to fund the Tenant Assistance Project. TAP provides legal representation for residents facing eviction for free through volunteer lawyers. More than 20 organizations are involved in the program, including the Nebraska State Bar Association and Legal Aid of Nebraska, said Laurie Heer Dale, director of the bar association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project.
According to the ACLU, attorneys come to court with about 90% of landlords but fewer than 10% of residents. If a tenant has legal representation, it substantially decreases eviction filing rates and keeps people in their homes, research shows.
Heer Dale said the rate of immediate eviction judgments — when a tenant is ordered to move out that day — has plummeted from more than 90% to less than 2% and more illegal eviction filings are being spotted since the program was brought to Douglas County.
“Given our mission to serve low-income households, we found [TAP] both relevant and incredibly beneficial,” Heer Dale said.
The Costs of Eviction Judgements
The reasons that land someone in eviction court vary, but chief among them is the city’s affordable housing crisis. According to a report sponsored by several Omaha nonprofits: “98,500 households need affordable housing of some kind … but there are fewer than 20,000 dedicated affordable units.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the housing crisis go hand-in-hand. Not only has the pandemic impacted housing stability, but housing instability has exacerbated the pandemic. A recent study from the University of California Los Angeles suggests ending eviction moratoriums leads to increasing COVID-19 cases and deaths.
To combat homelessness, the city helps fund shelters like Siena Francis House. But advocates like Feichtinger say money spent on preventing evictions and homelessness has a much better return on investment.
“Just think about the costs, social costs, and consequences to neighborhoods, and health and mental health services,” Feichtinger said.
Through federal pandemic relief money, Douglas County started funding rental and utility assistance programs. But 3 News Now reported in September 2020 more than a third of applications for rental assistance were rejected, mainly for poor documentation or for their landlord not responding. As spending deadlines approached, the Omaha World-Herald reported that some programs even had money left over.
With the government either not stepping up or falling short to fill that preventive role, volunteers stepped in.
How TAP Came to Douglas County
When the United States started to tailspin into stay-at-home orders and COVID-19 mandates, most of the world shut down. But in Lincoln, Nebraska, evictions proceeded, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln law professor Ryan Sullivan.
“They were saying ‘Everybody needs to stay at home and not spread the disease’…but they allowed eviction proceedings to continue,” Sullivan said. “Which is the worst if you’re trying to keep people in their homes.”
Sullivan said he saw it as a health and safety crisis, so he started showing up to court to offer help. That kicked off TAP in Lancaster County, and on his first day, Sullivan said he was able to keep seven families from being evicted.
The idea of sending free lawyers to help people with eviction cases isn’t new. For more than 50 years, Legal Aid of Nebraska has helped low-income Nebraskans get free legal help. But due to its federal funding stipulations, Legal Aid solicit their services; clients need to reach out to them.
“I had to hang back a lot [in the summer of 2020] and watch people who shouldn’t have been evicted get evicted,” Legal Aid attorney Caitlin Cedfeldt told The Reader in February. “There was a trailer park … where 15 people got evicted until I finally got a client and was able to put a stop to it. They stopped evicting people after that, so it does make a difference.”
After Sullivan had volunteered at the Lancaster County courthouse for a week or two, he was joined by Mindy Rush Chipman, director of the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights and fellow University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law alumnus. The Volunteer Lawyers Project joined to help facilitate and recruit more volunteers just weeks later.
Sullivan is the director of UNL’s civil law clinic, which gives law students the opportunity to work on real cases with the supervision of a licensed attorney. He said half of the volunteers in Lincoln are students, which helps the program run on limited resources.
Other cities and states across the U.S. have passed laws guaranteeing a right to counsel for tenants. Earlier this year, state Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha pushed for a similar bill in the Unicameral. But the bill stalled.
Months later, in early August, the Nebraska Bar Association brought TAP to Douglas County, where more than half of evictions in Nebraska take place. And while the program started in Lancaster County before most people knew there was a crisis, by the time it reached Douglas County there were just a few weeks left before the federal eviction moratorium ended, which it did on Aug. 26.
Word started to spread about the program as the Nebraska Bar Association held information sessions on landlord-tenant law to prepare attorneys. One lawyer who jumped in the fray was Omaha City Councilmember Aimee Melton, who said she learned of the program through a partner at her law firm, Reagan, Melton & Delaney.
“Some attorneys scaled back because of COVID,” Melton said. “For someone with a private practice, I think it’s an obligation to do some pro-bono work.”
Heer Dale said the work so far has been evenly split between stopping evictions outright and delaying them.
Eviction cases can be dismissed if the landlord didn’t follow proper procedures or give enough notice before serving an eviction. Before TAP, few eviction filings were found to be illegal. But now, Feichtinger said half of the program’s cases are dismissed.
Other evictions are unavoidable, Heer Dale said, but a lawyer can work out a “stipulated agreement” with the landlord: The tenant still has to move out, but they can get more time. In an immediate eviction, the landlord can lock up the tenant’s belongings. With extra time, the tenant can find a new home and move their stuff. Heer Dale recalled one instance where a landlord even agreed to let the tenant borrow his truck to move out. She said at least half of TAP’s cases end with a stipulated agreement.
TAP can also help tenants work out an agreement for more time to make rent, so they can stay in their homes. The program helps both landlords and tenants connect with and apply for rental assistance. Either way, Heer Dale said the tenant avoids having an eviction on their record.
Melton began volunteering when the program launched in Douglas County the first week of August. At the same time, the Omaha City Council debated the 2022 city budget. Melton proposed an amendment to hire a full-time employee for $50,000 to help coordinate the project. That failed to pass with Democratic council members voting on party lines against Melton, a Republican.
Melton said she then spoke to Mayor Jean Stothert, who later that week asked Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, the nonprofit tasked with distributing the city’s rental assistance, to allocate $50,000 to the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
At the end of September, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners followed suit by allocating $410,000 to the program.
“It’s a win-win-win,” said Commissioner Mauren Boyle, who introduced the resolution.
Heer Dale said that money’s made a massive impact on their work. Although the lawyers volunteer their time, others need to be paid to compile cases, review complaints and put information together.
“It’s huge, the funding we need to provide this program,” Heer Dale said. “Even just this skeletal framework.”
The Next Challenge: Encouraging Tenants to Show Up
The funding from the county is intended to keep TAP going through 2024, but the program is limited. Some days there aren’t enough volunteers. Other days there are more attorneys than people facing eviction. The bigger problem is getting people to show up, which Heer Dale said is out of their hands.
Attorney Dave Pantos said when he first started volunteering, only a third of people scheduled to appear that day would show up. Now Pantos said that number is close to half, but he said it’s still frustrating to see people who could’ve avoided being evicted.
“If you don’t show up, you will get evicted,” Pantos said.
Cedfeldt said the appearance rate for eviction cases has always been low. Some tenants don’t know they need to show up, and others think their chances of winning are hopeless. She said one recent client was evicted several times before, but this time she got the case dismissed. The client told her it was the first time she'd been to court “without being screwed.”
“There’s a human tendency to avoid a problem,” Cedfeldt. “With some clients I wonder if that’s the issue.”
Though Legal Aid can’t solicit their services, they can provide information to tenants facing eviction. Cedfeldt said they compile each week’s cases and cross list the addresses to mail an information letter. She said research has shown mail reminders increase appearance rates.
A person needs to qualify as low-income to get help from Legal Aid, but TAP is available for anyone. Heer Dale said more than 100 attorneys have volunteered for the program between Lancaster and Douglas Counties, along with up to 100 other community members.
The help is necessary as evictions ramp up again now that the eviction moratorium has ended.
During the moratorium, Heer Dale said about 50 eviction hearings took place per week. On Nov. 3, 51 hearings were held in one day. With winter approaching and COVID-19 continuing to complicate things, Omaha’s housing crisis is far from over.
Councilmember Melton said the city can do more. Although they’ve worked on homeless shelters, she said they still need to address Omaha’s lack of affordable housing and help keep people in their homes.
“If you have a mom and a child, [homeless shelters] will take them. But they have beds and furniture and other things. Why should they lose all that and start over?” Melton said. “[TAP] not only saves money, but keeps a child in their same bed.”
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