Elephant in the Room: No Money, Mo’ Problems

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism.

“It’s a text-book example of institutional racism.”

This was University of Chicago Professor Chris Berry’s conclusion when he testified, last summer, before the County Board discussing the disparate impact felt by Cook County residents in their property tax assessments. If you’ve been following the news (or the election cycle), you may be aware that there have been some problems brewing with the Cook County Assessor’s Office. A study conducted by the University of Chicago showed a discrepancy where lower-priced homes were over-valued and higher-priced homes were lower-valued.  If this conclusion is correct, this system shifted the tax-paying burden to lower socio-economic neighborhoods; neighborhoods composed primarily of people of color.

The disparate implementation by the Assessor’s Office poses severe risks to lower-income neighborhoods—many people who often come to LAF seeking help. We see how the inability to keep a home decreases a family’s ability to create wealth; it requires them to make big financial sacrifices to keep their home—maybe their child’s college tuition can’t get paid, or they have to pick between paying the tax bill or medicine and groceries for the month. For those that can’t keep up with payments, they may feel forced to sell quickly, losing out on their investment. In dire cases, the county may sell the taxes to a tax-buyer and if the home owner cannot repay those taxes, the tax-buyer may take ownership of the home through a tax-deed.

This says nothing of the physical and mental stress people experience fighting to save their house, or the damage it inflicts on children who may have to move to new schools, or the depression an elderly parent may fall into when they can no longer afford their home.

Proponents of the current system argue that anyone has the right to appeal their assessment. And that is true, there is an appeals process. But just like so many complicated parts of our legal system, those that need access to this remedy have a more difficult time accessing it. U of C’s study found that wealthier neighborhoods appealed at a much higher rate than lower-value neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods also saw assessment reductions more frequently than poorer neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to be represented by attorneys as well. Attorneys, logically, target higher-income clients in order to reap higher rewards. In 2015, attorneys earned 22 million dollars in attorney’s fees involving assessment appeals. Unfortunately, for those living in lower-income neighborhoods, the return on investment for an attorney to file an appeal for a single-family home won’t match what that attorney could earn representing multi-unit condo associations. A person who is low-income, living in a low-income neighborhood, with a home that is valued high, but can only be sold for a much lower price, will be hard-pressed to find an affordable legal representative.

This is the gap LAF tries to bridge—we field calls from people on the verge of losing their home and our Consumer Practice Group steps in to help.  Some clients are advised on their right to appeal the tax assessment of their home. Other times we guide clients through obtaining the correct tax exemptions as home owners.  In cases where the clients have fallen too far behind in tax payments, we represent them in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which allows them to catch up on their payments in order to save their home.

The work we do doesn’t solve the disparate impact the assessor’s system has on our client communities, but by helping them fight in a system that is stacked against them, it reminds them that they have rights and tools available to protect their assets. More importantly, we create security and peace of mind for families who can return to their neighborhoods—to their homes–with the same sense of stability as those in richer zip-codes.

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Standing up for Maria

Last November, Maria’s landlord told her she and her infant son would be evicted over sixty-six dollars’ worth of unpaid rent, which he claimed had accrued over the previous three months. She offered to pay him back, but he refused to accept the money, saying that he was moving forward with eviction proceedings. It wasn’t even worth her time to show up in court and defend herself, her landlord claimed; there was nothing she could do.

Veena

Veena Gursahani of LAF’s Housing practice group

Prior to the eviction proceedings, Maria was already attempting to move. She is a survivor of domestic violence, and her abuser had been showing up at her apartment and harassing her. She wanted to move to get away from him, but she receives a housing subsidy as part of HUD’s Moderate Rehabilitation Program, which limits the locations she is permitted to rent from and makes it difficult to move on short notice. Participants in the program also lose their subsidies automatically if they are evicted from their subsidized rental unit, unlike participants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. In other words, the stakes for avoiding eviction couldn’t have been much higher.

Fortunately, Maria didn’t take her landlord at his word when he told her not to bother speaking up for herself. She reached out for LAF for help and managed to win her eviction case, preserve her housing subsidy, and move herself and her son away from her abuser. But not without a fight.

Maria had missed her first court appearance thanks to the bogus advice her landlord and his representative offered her, and a default judgement had already been entered against her. This meant that Veena Gursahani of LAF’s Housing Practice group, the attorney assigned to Maria’s case, had only a few short weeks to have that judgement vacated. With only hours to spare, Veena filed a motion to vacate, which was eventually granted.

Veena began work on litigating the eviction while simultaneously advocating for CHA to find a new unit for Maria. When Veena was finally given the landlord’s current ledger, 6 weeks after discovery was served and less than a week before the scheduled trial, Veena learned that the $66 at issue had, in fact, been paid by CHA.

“The landlord’s attorney basically admitted that the landlord didn’t want any more incidents involving Maria’s abuser in the building, and he decided it would be easiest to just evict her for nonpayment of rent,” says Veena. “Little did he know we were going to fight him tooth and nail on it.”

Once she saw the ledger, Veena succeeded in gaining a summary judgement for Maria. She could stay where she was, because a city of Chicago ordinance specifically bars landlords from pursuing evictions after they’ve accepted payment of “rent due”.

Maria’s landlord had been pursuing an action for money it had already recouped, attempting to evict a subsidized tenant who was already trying to move.  Ironically, right before the scheduled trial and summary judgment hearing, Maria was officially given permission to move into her new subsidized unit, so she could put some distance between herself, her abusive ex, and her dishonest landlord.

A case like Maria’s takes of lot of work, but it shows us just how severely disadvantaged we are when we face the legal system without the right help, and just how severe the consequences of that can be. So even if standing up for Maria involved a few late nights, it was well worth it. As Veena herself puts it, “It was a labor of love.”

Fighting for the Poor and Vulnerable: March 2018 eNewsletter

Our core mission at LAF?  We fight for the poor and vulnerable.  Today let me unpack a couple of those seven words.
“We” does not just mean LAF staff, but also includes the volunteers of all kinds who work at our staff’s side.  Those volunteers include folks of all kinds and from all generations.  Lawyers, social workers, technicians, marketing and advertising professionals, community organizers, labor workers, and many more.  Managing this amazing volume of support is a full-time, sophisticated job, done here by our Melissa Picciola.  Read about Melissa here.
“Vulnerable” includes survivors of intimate partner violence, like our client Linda, who is finally free of her abusive husband, after months of needlessly complex legal work.  And our colleagues Myka and Alyse, a volunteer from Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, made that happen.  Read about it, and a lot more, in this month’s eNewsletter here.
And join us in the good fight.
Sincerely,
John N. Gallo
LAF CEO and Executive Director

 

A fresh start for Linda

When Linda came to the Jose De Diego Legal Clinic in the fall of last year and spoke with the volunteers there from Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, she was seeking assistance with obtaining a divorce from her abusive husband.

Since the pension was the only piece of property at issue, it should have been a straightforward process that didn’t require the resources of an attorney. For that reason, LAF initially planned to refer Linda to the CARPLS divorce help desk for help filling out the appropriate paperwork.

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Jose De Diego Community Academy, the site of LAF and Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP’s monthly legal clinic in Wicker Park, where we first met Linda

“We would have closed the case if it wasn’t for Alyse,” says Myka Held, an attorney with LAF’s Family Law Practice group who served as co-counsel with Alyse Sagalchik in representing Linda. “In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t.”

Alyse is an attorney at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP who regularly volunteers at the clinic, which, she notes, is her “favorite pro bono commitment—not just since I have been at Katten but since I began practicing law.” Alyse had been looking to contribute even more, and, she says, “Linda happened to reach out to LAF at exactly the right time.” So Alyse took Linda’s case pro bono and moved forward with the divorce, hoping to resolve the issue as quickly as possible by obtaining a default judgment. Since Carl was in jail and unlikely to appear in court, this should have been easy.

Before they could obtain that judgment though, Alyse and LAF received a letter from Carl in jail. It was a rambling, 4-page long document that accused Linda of abuse toward him, demanded money before he would agree to a divorce, and ranted about the attorneys representing Linda. Carl also sent correspondence to the presiding judge, which delayed the case further. On top of all that, based upon a technical issue in the criminal case against him for assaulting Linda, Carl successfully appealed his conviction in the criminal case and was granted a new trial.

“Linda desperately wanted to be rid of him,” says Myka. “She was worried that he would come after her if he got out of jail.” What’s more, Carl planned to represent himself in his second criminal trial, which means he would be the one questioning Linda about his own violence toward her.

Thanks to Alyse and Myka’s hard work, the divorce was at last finalized in early March—five months after the petition for dissolution of marriage was filed. Linda also put the prosecutor assigned to Carl’s domestic violence case in contact with LAF so they could share information that will hopefully prevent Linda from being subjected to the trauma of being questioned by her abuser in court.

Linda’s story reminds us of the difference legal aid can make in the lives of our clients, and demonstrates how vital our volunteer partners are as we work to increase access to justice. As Alyse puts it, “It is amazing to me the difference between the results for those who have legal representation and those who do not…that is not part of my understanding of how justice ought to work. I am trying, in this tiny way, to fix that for as many individuals as I can.” Her help, combined with contributions from LAF staff and her fellow clinic volunteers, enabled Linda to make a break with her abuser and start a new chapter in her life.

A story from LAF’s Larry Wood:

Larry Wood, Director of LAF’s Housing Practice Group, shares the story of a chance encounter that ultimately kept an elderly man threatened with eviction in his home. Stories like this remind us why legal aid is so vital for Chicagoans living in poverty, and how a little bit of advocacy can go a long way.

A couple weeks ago, while I was in one of the city’s eviction courtrooms waiting for my case to be called, I watched a landlord’s attorney obtain orders for possession against a long line of unrepresented, low-income tenants, including one elderly man in a wheelchair who lost his subsidized housing.  It was depressing.

Then I saw Jesse approach the bench.  It took him a while because he’s 82 and he moves slowly, but he told the judge he needed time to get an attorney and the judge continued his case for a week.  Jesse then left the courtroom.  I followed him outside.

Jesse was a voucher-holder facing eviction from the mixed-income development where he had lived for more than fifteen years.  According to his landlord, he owed almost $1,200 in rent for the period October 2017 through January 2018.  “That’s wrong,” Jesse told me.  “I have paid my rent every month since leaving Clarksdale, Mississippi and coming to Chicago in 1953!”

A couple days later Jesse sent me money order receipts showing that he had paid rent every month during the period at issue.  He had even paid for February on time.  I called the currency exchange where he had purchased the money orders and learned they’d all been cashed shortly after being purchased.

When I brought this to the attorney’s attention, he said the rent ledger showed that Jesse incurred his rental debt in 2014 and 2015 – not last year.  He said his client had been trying to resolve this issue with Jesse for years, and would cut Jesse a break because of his age and dismiss the case in exchange for just the rent claimed.  “He won’t have to reimburse my client,” the attorney said, “for its costs and fees.”

Jesse could not afford to give his landlord an additional $1,200 on his fixed and limited income.  I told the attorney that Jesse would assert two defenses. First, the landlord’s unreasonable delay in collecting rent unfairly prejudiced Jesse, who no longer has receipts for rent payments he made more than three years ago. Second, the landlord waived his right to rent accrued during and before 2015 when he signed a new lease for the apartment in 2017.

Last week, the attorney called me and said that his client will dismiss the eviction action with prejudice and seal the court file.

It’s just one more success for LAF – for a client who had done nothing wrong, in a case he most certainly would not have won had we not been there, against someone taking advantage of him simply because he is poor.  Jesse’s case is an exemplary illustration of the importance of LAF for people living in poverty.

Leave the light (and the heat) on

As the winter wears on, plenty of Chicagoans take for granted the refuge of their warm, comfortable homes as they duck inside and out of the weather. But for many of LAF’s clients, that security is in jeopardy, owing to the simple fact that they sometimes lack the resources to pay their utility bills. This becomes especially dangerous during the winter months when heating costs spike, making a tight financial situation even tighter; and when temperatures drop below zero, threatening health and safety.

pexels-photo-764767Depending on their income level, clients may be eligible for grants from LIHEAP (CEDA) or from their utility provider to offset the cost of monthly bills. Those whose service has been shut off may qualify for assistance getting their heat or power reconnected, or to pay off overdue service fees over time.

Unfortunately, these programs are subject to slow administrative processes and complex rules and regulations that can lead to shutoffs while benefits are being processed, or prevent low-income individuals from seeking benefits altogether. To better serve our clients, Barbara Richardson of LAF’s Consumer Practice Group recently held a training session for her fellow staff members to discuss the various utility assistance programs available to LAF’s clients and the strategies they might employ to avoid having service disconnected.

Barbara speaks from experience about how her clients often feel coerced into agreeing to terms for paying off past-due bills. “Of course they will agree to something they can’t afford; they need their utilities back on,” she says. Sometimes clients are forced to choose between heating their homes during the winter or cooling them when the weather warms up. “A lot of our clients are accustomed to living without utilities for months in the summer,” Barbara adds. “It’s a cycle.”

LAF attorneys, paralegals, and intake specialists discussed how other common legal issues facing families living in poverty might complicate the utility issue. How do state budget issues affect clients’ options for seeking help? What if the client has a disability? What he or she needs power in their home to operate medical equipment? What if the meters measuring their gas or electricity consumption have been tampered with?

Answering these questions for our attorneys, so they can answer them for clients, is an integral part of LAF’s mission. The more we learn about the diverse and interconnected problems people living in poverty face, the better equipped we are to advance equal justice and get our clients’ lives back on track.