By: Brieanna Smith, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern
I observed landlord-tenant mediation recently and had a conversation with an attorney representing landlords; we talked specifically about pro se tenants who were lower income. Landlords’ attorneys are aware that tenants on Section 8 will lose their housing voucher if they get evicted. Attorneys will use this against tenants to get them to agree to pretty much anything to prevent eviction.
From what I have learned from being in my Access to Justice class and in the HeLP clinic, a lot of lower-income tenants have multiple legal issues going on. The most common reason why tenants are evicted is nonpayment of rent. A tenant could have lost their job, had a medical emergency, or their car could have broken down. Financial hardship, unfortunately, is not a legal defense. Also, landlords in Atlanta (from what I learned from participating in Alternative Spring Break) often do not keep properties in livable condition. Unfortunately, laws in Georgia are not tenant friendly. Tenants who live in substandard conditions may think that withholding rent is the only way for them to get justice, but it’s not. And even if they are constructively evicted and vacate the property, they may not have anywhere else to go. Imagine living in a subpar situation and having a sick child whose conditions are exacerbated due to these conditions. Some tenants may also be dealing with domestic violence or problems on their job. Some tenants may have awful relationships with their landlords or may not even know who their landlord is due to a change in management. During mediation, tenants also have expressed that leasing offices were often closed during the hours that they were supposed to be open. The landlords also would not return phone calls, make necessary repairs, and sometimes even refused to accept payment.
Just like any layperson, tenants typically do not know the law, and often put their trust in the landlord’s attorney that they are getting a fair deal. It is great that mediation is free in housing court, but the scales are still tipped for landlords. But what if there were pro bono attorneys to consult tenants and in some cases represent them during mediation?
I did some research about how other countries deal with people with legal problems. In northern Europe, access to justice is prioritized not just for lower-income litigants, but middle-income individuals as well. More than 60% of these countries’ populations are eligible for legal aid services. I googled the demographics for these countries and saw the following: in the Netherlands, 76.88% of the population is Dutch; in Sweden, the majority of the population is Swedish; and in Finland, 93.4% of the population is Finn. I bring these statistics up because these countries have a majority white population. These countries specifically prioritize access to legal aid. Countries like the United States with more racial diversity have more of a struggle providing legal aid and services for lower- and middle-income litigants. I do not think that this is a mistake. Not having people of color/lower-income people having the proper access to justice that they need is deliberate.
I really do want lower-income and also middle-income litigants to have a better access to the complicated justice system. I want race to not play a role in the ability of people to obtain justice. I also wish that the system would not penalize people for being poor. Our laws are jaded in housing, health, and even economics. My entire experience being in law school has opened my eyes to these issues, and unfortunately shown me the major flaws in our system.
As a law student, I know that being in a clinic is great work experience. But I also hope that the work we do can truly make a difference in the lives of our clients.