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Volunteers with Tenant Assistance Program helping keep hundreds in their homes

Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 9:01 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Early in the pandemic, the head of UNL’s Civil Law clinic, Ryan Sullivan checked the court docket for the Lancaster County Court and saw the schedule was packed with evictions.

“It was a time when we were asked to social distance and stay home and nearly all court proceedings were closed but evictions were still happening,” Sullivan said. “So I was free that morning and went down and represented everyone who appeared that morning.”

This was unheard of.

Typically in eviction court tenants would be unrepresented and end up agreeing to an immediate eviction, Sullivan said.

But now, there’s a whole different process when a tenant walks off that second floor elevator. They’re met by a volunteer with the Tenants Assistance Project, a program that’s helped keep more than 500 people in their homes since Sullivan first started representing tenants that spring day in eviction court.

This is important, especially now, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said in a press conference Thursday.

It’s why the city is tackling evictions on two fronts.

One of those is the Tenants Assistance Project.

10/11 NOW went behind the scenes with the project. As soon as a tenant gets off the elevator at the second floor they were met by a volunteer attorney and UNL law student. The lawyers were seen conferencing with the tenants.

One tenant, who didn’t want to share her name or go on camera, told 10/11 NOW she’d have been lost without the legal representation.

Sullivan said once the attorneys figure out the tenants case, they meet with the landlord’s attorney and come to an agreement.

That could be a payment plan, signing the tenant up for rental assistance or allowing a peaceful move-out.

Alan Dugger is one of the volunteers. He’s a senior certified law student and started watching eviction court procedures as the project was just getting started.

“An eviction would happen in a minute,” Dugger said. “On a good day for the landlord’s attorneys they could run through their docket in 10 to 15 minutes and that’s 10 to 15 families put on the street with 15 minutes of effort.

Now, they’ve slowed it down and given tenants a chance.

“Everyone deserves to have a lawyer when they’re in court, everyone deserves due process,” Dugger said.

So far, the Tenant Assistance Project has brought about 100 volunteers and they’ve helped 560 families. So far they have a 98% success rate in preventing immediate evictions.

Now they’re looking for more volunteers.

“Right now we’re maintaining,” Sullivan said. “I was at eviction court this morning and they were scrambling. We could have used an extra attorney or two. Sometimes there’s 20 cases in a day and with three or four attorneys if even half of the tenants were notified and show up we’re at a two to one ratio and those hearings go very fast.”

There’s also concern evictions will start going up now that the federal eviction moratorium has ended.

In the first three weeks of August, 79 evictions were filed.

So far the county has avoided a spike and they said there’s early evidence that that’s because of this assistance program. A trend, they’d like to continue well past the pandemic.

“By making the process more challenging and not as quick and easy, landlords are forced to take a step back and engage more with their clients to formulate a plan that’s mutually agreeable for both parties,” Sullivan said.

They’re not only helping tenants.

As part of the city’s second approach to minimizing evictions, they also have a representative at the courthouse helping landlords receive emergency rental assistance funds to ensure they get income even if their tenants are behind on rent.

Gaylor Baird said the city still has $3.5 million in rental assistance they need to distribute to people struggling to pay bills due to the pandemic.

“It’s more than likely you’re eligible. This money is here in the community and the earlier you can apply the better because it can take a few weeks to process but it can go a long way from preventing you from ending up in eviction court in the first place,” Nick Martinez, who has been working with the city to process these applications said.

Gaylor Baird said so far $8.6 million has been paid out to more than 2,000 families. 70% of that went to families who make less than $26,000 annually for a family of four.

They expect that money to last through October.

“There is a finite amount of money but we hope this helps bridge the gap until people can get back on their feet,” Gaylor Baird said.

To volunteer with the Tenants Assistance Project: Contact the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project at nevlp@nevlp.org or 531-220-6773.

To apply for rental assistance: Application forms are available at both lincoln.ne.gov/rent and the Resident Resource page at COVID19.lincoln.ne.gov. Tenants and landlords may also call 402-413-2085 for assistance.

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