Housing Justice Project
Jordan Taren is an intern with the King County Bar Association Pro Bono Services' Housing Justice Project (HJP). As an intern Jordan is assisting at the HJP clinic that is run out of the King County courthouse.
July 1, 2013
The King County Bar Association's Housing Justice Project (HJP) is a fast-paced pro bono legal clinic located at the King County Courthouse. There are three attorneys on staff, and all other participants are volunteers from the Seattle area legal community. The clinic opens promptly at 8 a.m. every day because evictions do not take breaks or holidays. There are no "slow" days, just some less busy than others. The staff and volunteers (attorneys and legal assistants) possess an unparalleled enthusiasm for helping others, which stands out prominently as an integral part of how HJP helps tenants.
From the first day working at the clinic, it was apparent that HJP truly lives up to its mission as a homelessness prevention organization. Unfortunately, business is booming. HJP doesn't take appointments; it is walk-in only and first come, first served. HJP has been described as "eviction triage." Priority for legal help goes to tenants who have hearings that day. Next up are tenants who must answer their summons and complaints. Lastly, if there are attorneys available, comes everyone else with an eviction or landlord-tenant related issue. The objective is to help as many people in as little time as possible.
The office HJP occupies is quite small and located just feet from the ex parte courtroom where show cause hearings are held. Intakes and attorney-client meetings take place on benches in the hallway; so do most negotiations between HJP volunteer attorneys and counsel for landlords and management companies. The goal is rather simple: to help tenants. That includes everything from negotiating for a few extra days to allow a tenant to vacate, to representing tenants at their show cause hearings.
As interns with HJP, our duties run the gamut of client representation. We work from the beginning of the process, by completing intakes and interviewing clients, through the representation by shadowing attorneys while they counsel, advise, negotiate, and represent clients in front of judges. We are expected to give input on possible defenses to evictions based on the individual circumstances of the clients. To do this, we are expected to have a working understanding of the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (RCW 59.18), and the Unlawful Detainer Act (RCW 59.12). Interns do everything — getting clients checked in to court to ensure they are not defaulted, filing papers with the clerk's office, finding and pulling up missing documents from the Electronic Court Records website, drafting motions, and much more.
In addition to working at the clinic, the rest of my time as an HJP intern has been spent on two separate projects. The first was helping my supervising attorney prepare to give an oral argument in front of the Washington State Supreme Court. Second, I am currently working on a project that addresses a possible amendment to Seattle Municipal Code 22.210, the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance, which would make it unlawful for landlords to raise their rents on low-income tenants before making substantial renovations in an attempt to displace them without providing the required relocation assistance payments.
Aug. 13, 2013
Working at the Housing Justice Project has been an eye-opening introduction to the realities of civil legal aid work. It's not easy working at a clinic where every client is having one of the worst days of their lives. These people are not in the most dire of straits, such as some clients at the Public Defender's office, but being put out on the streets with no resources and owing thousands to your former landlord is correlative to losing one's liberty in the criminal justice system.
Imagine how you might feel knowing you and your family will be physically removed by the sheriff from your place of comfort and security, and placed on the street. And this is happening in as little as three days' time — and this is the very first time you are put on notice. By the way, you have no money and nowhere to go. You might have a job, you might receive government benefits; if you have a job, most likely you will lose it, because more time must be devoted to finding food and shelter for your family. Not to mention having an eviction filed on your record will disqualify you for around 90 percent of rental housing on the market, and you will still have to pay $50 a pop in application fees just to be rejected.
One of the most important lessons learned this summer is to remain calm under pressure. Time is constantly working against the volunteers at the Housing Justice Clinic. Take the (very common) scenario previously mentioned — now start from scratch with zero paperwork provided and see what can be done. The unlawful detainer process is a special statutory proceeding, and as such requires strict compliance with all processes. Even the smallest misstep can mean the difference between a tenant losing their housing, and a landlord having to start the process over. Didn't indicate that you could reply by fax? Didn't attempt personal service before posting and mailing? That's enough to get a case dismissed.
Time to quickly run through a mental checklist: Is there a procedural defense, problems with service? Are there any substantive defenses, habitability issues? Is there any room for negotiation with the landlord? Oh, and you only have one hour to prepare.
Step one: Get the client checked into court. Defaults are called at 9:30 a.m., better let them know the tenant is working with us. At the same time, have a legal assistant check the electronic court records and print all necessary court documents.
Step two: Review the documents, meet with the client, and build your case.
Step three: Attempt negotiations. What does everyone want? More move-out time? Money upfront? Pay and stay? How can we get the best deal for our client?
Should step three fail, it's time to represent the client at the show-cause hearing. Make sure your client is prepped on courtroom etiquette, don't let them stand next to their landlord, be prepared with relevant RCWs and case law. Now, good luck, a family's livelihood is riding on this outcome. When the initial client representation ends it's time to write up notes, get briefed by a legal assistant, and prepare to meet your next client.