Pop-up clinic offers free legal advice to Durham tenants facing eviction
When the federal eviction moratorium ended this summer, Duke Law's Civil Justice Clinic stepped in to assist with a surge in rental assistance applications in Durham County.
On Friday mornings this semester, the Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic is holding a pop-up Eviction Advice Clinic in the Durham County Courthouse in downtown Durham. The clinic provides legal assistance to local residents facing eviction, often related to circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and exacerbated after the federal eviction moratorium ended on Aug. 26.
“When the moratorium was lifted in the summer, it was anticipated and it played out that there would be a substantial number of new of eviction filings,” said Clinical Professor Charles Holton ’73, who directs the Civil Justice Clinic.
With the Durham County Department of Social Services (DSS) overwhelmed by the surge – and with encouragement from Durham County Chief District Court Judge Patricia Evans – Holton and Clinical Professor Jesse McCoy, supervising attorney of the Civil Justice Clinic, moved quickly. On Sept. 14, the new initiative was up and running.
“It gives anyone from the community who has questions about their lease or questions, about the process or questions about the assistance programs, the opportunity to come in and talk to someone and get information straight and first-hand to make better decisions about what they want to do moving forward,” said McCoy.
In preparing to run the clinic, Holton and McCoy read up on the primary rental assistance application forms in Durham County, including the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and N.C. Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program. They also met with DSS to determine how best the clinic could assist applicants – many of whom do not have Internet access or “the capacity to fill out fairly complicated forms,” McCoy said.
They also turned to students to help staff the clinic, and “the Duke Law student response has been tremendous,” Holton said.
Added McCoy: “It’s really more of an operation than we initially conceived it would be when we first started. I think that’s all a credit to students who are ready, willing, and able to take on this position and help people in the community.”
The clinic is staffed by four to five students from either the Civil Justice Clinic or the broader student body. Amanda Joos ’23 showed an interest in working with the Civil Justice Clinic toward the end of her first semester and now has a paid internship as the Eviction Advice Clinic coordinator.
“I’ve had the opportunity to develop our interview intake questionnaires, where we get to learn more about the clients and really become familiar with the Emergency Rental Assistance Program,” Joos said. “Now, I’m there every week to answer student questions and keep things running smoothly for the three hours that we hold the clinic. It’s exciting to see students’ confidence increase weekly as they work their way through the questionnaire and assist the community.”
Andrew Tisinger ’23, who is pursuing a Certificate in Public Interest and Public Service Law, learned of the Eviction Advice Clinic through his work with the Economic Justice Project. Holton and McCoy are faculty advisors for the student group, and he was excited to work with them further. “The type of work that they’re doing just felt really important and interesting, and I wanted to be involved in it,” he said.
“Students have an opportunity to see real-world issues outside of the typical campus infrastructure and are able to exercise some of these abilities and skills that they are learning on campus for the benefit of someone who really needs it because but for these students, a lot of these clients would have no one.”
While their legal knowledge and experience vary, “the student volunteers came to us with the desire and the empathy that’s necessary for this position,” McCoy said.
Holton added that volunteers in the Civil Justice Clinic are taught substantive housing law as well as procedural law related to the filing of eviction cases and the types of defenses that are available. Other volunteers attend a training session to familiarize them with completing the intake questionnaire and rental assistance forms, as well as documentation like leases, eviction notices, and related court papers.
“If it’s something that has to do with missing payments, then the intake form is very useful and you walk through it and fill out all of the information, as needed,” Tisinger said. “But sometimes there are more complicated questions and so it’s just important to figure out at a broad level what the issue is before [the client] talks to Professors Holton or McCoy.”
When possible, Legal Aid of North Carolina has also provided lawyers to assist at the Eviction Advice Clinic.
On any given Friday, the clinic sees up to seven or eight clients, some on their way to eviction court that morning. In these cases, McCoy said, visiting the clinic beforehand often helps clients to better understand their legal circumstances and how to effectively navigate that space.
It’s also an invaluable lesson for the students.
Said Joos: “I think it surprised me just how many people [facing eviction] over the last year have been healthcare workers. They’re our front-line people, and we know they’re being exposed to COVID every day. But sometimes healthcare workers are laid off if they test positive for COVID at work, and suddenly they need help not losing their home or apartment. That has been really shocking to me.”
Holton said students tell him how “eye-opening” their experiences are at the clinic: “To actually hear face-to-face the stories that some of our clients tell is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heartwarming. But it’s a real hands-on experience in everyday life, especially among the poor in Durham.”
Added McCoy: “Students have an opportunity to see real-world issues outside of the typical campus infrastructure and are able to exercise some of these abilities and skills that they are learning on campus for the benefit of someone who really needs it because but for these students, a lot of these clients would have no one.”
For Tisinger, the work has presented a very different experience of serving clients from what he was accustomed to.
“Before I came to law school, I was working in a client-facing job, but the clients were corporations and that was my understanding of what client work was,” he said. “But, the Eviction [Advice] Clinic is just very different and it’s made me more steadfast in wanting the work that I do to have a positive impact on the world, and it’s made me think more about trying to find a way to have more of a direct impact on the lives of individual people.”
Holton and McCoy plan to continue the clinic through fall semester, and possibly beyond – they are fully staffed with student volunteers through winter break. N.C. Central University has now started up a matching clinic program at the courthouse on Wednesdays, using much of the same model and training material as was developed for the Duke students.
“The community has been receptive. They know that we’re there. They’re coming out. We would still like to continue increasing the word about the program so that people know they come down and get advice when they need it,” McCoy said.
Meanwhile, Durham continues to grapple with an eviction crisis.
“In my opinion, we may not be where we were in 2015 with Durham actually leading North Carolina in evictions per capita, but we still know that people are still dealing with tremendous hardship now with COVID impacting their ability to work, impacting their ability to even do things in person,” McCoy said.
Holton pointed to local forces beyond a lawyer or law student’s ability to change, including lack of affordable housing, rising rents, insufficient wages, and residents who are just starting to get back to work. On October 4, DSS temporarily paused accepting new applications for ERAP; according to the city website, by September 18, the program had 3,000 applications pending.
The Eviction Advice Clinic meets weekly on Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the second floor Community Offices Conference Room at the Durham County Courthouse. The building is located at 501 South Dillard Street in Durham.
Sean Rowe is manager of strategic communications at Duke Law School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.