Tenant Law Project increasingly successful in helping renters



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Kent County Renters’ Alliance Coordinator Kym Spring is bustling around the small conference room at Steepletown Center, asking incoming people to fill out an intake form, calling to find another lawyer to cover for a scheduled attorney’s absence due to illness, reassuring waiting tenants that they will be helped soon — and ensuring that they are.

The Tenant Law Project, which gives legal assistance to renters and advises them of their rights under the law, has since November offered a clinic every first and third Monday of the month from noon to 2 p.m. As the word gets out, there has been an upward trend in the number of renters with problems who show up.

“Today is pretty busy,” Spring comments. “It’s hard to tell in advance how many people will come in, and then we had one of the attorneys and one of the Cooley students call in sick. It would be great if we could make appointments for people, though I don’t think that’s feasible right now.

“But if we did I could sleep on Sunday nights,” she adds with a wry smile.

The clinic is a collaboration between Thomas M. Cooley Law School, the Legal Assistance Center, Legal Aid of Western Michigan, and the Kent County Renters’ Alliance (KCRA). Cooley Law Students work with the renters under the supervision of a professor or practicing attorney.

A new organization, KCRA had hired Kym Spring only months  before the clinics began. KCRA’s mission is “to promote fair renting practices, ensure tenant rights are upheld, and support permanent, quality housing for all.”

The Coalition to End Homelessness released a report from its Affordable Housing Action Team (AHAT) in 2011, with a strong recommendation that the community focus on renters’ issues.

Spring says that it might be premature to say whether the increase in clinic attendance will be substantial, or even whether it will continue,  but the potential is certainly there. In 2009, there were approximately 10,000 evictions in the county, according to the AHAT report.

Other generalizations about those who have attended the clinic are easier to come by, because KCRA is keeping careful records.

Through the Jan. 16 session (no clinic was held Jan. 2), 62% of the tenants helped were from the City of Grand Rapids, with 19% from Wyoming, and no more than one person from elsewhere, though Kentwood, Cedar Springs, Belmont, Grandville and Jenison have each had one resident helped.

The two tenant problems which predominate have been landlord failure to make repairs and the eviction process, with failure to return security deposit third.

The Tenant Law Project does not offer legal representation but merely steers tenants in the right legal direction. However, even in the short time the project has been conducted, attorney volunteer Aaron Hamming has taken on a pro bono case.

Hamming, a new attorney who opened up his own law office at 161 Ottawa, has concentrated on  family and criminal law but would like to do more civil litigation. He says that in order to help the client he first met at the Tenant Law Project Clinic, he has had to find a skilled interpreter, which Cooley was able to supply in the person of a bilingual student.

Also on occasion the students and trained volunteers are able to help renters find another community resource that can help them further.

“There are great organizations in this community who are helping people in need of legal advice when confronted with issues from their landlords,” said Cooley Assistant Dean and Associate Professor Tracey Brame. “This project fills a major gap in available services while giving law students practical experience helping real people in the community.”

The Legal Aid of Western Michigan attorney John Smith trained those working there on the basics of landlord/tenant law, existing housing services in the community and common legal issues renters face. 

“At Legal Aid, we are experiencing increased requests for legal help from tenants,” said Smith. “We prioritize representing renters in court when their tenancy is federally subsidized, their housing is unsafe or substandard, their landlord’s actions are unfair or illegal, or they are otherwise unable to represent themselves. But because of our limited resources, we can’t give legal help to every tenant who needs it.  The Tenant Law Project will offer another avenue for renters to learn about their legal options.”

Legal Aid produced a comprehensive and easy-to-follow training manual. The clinic also distributes a handout generated by the State of Michigan called “Tenants and Landlords: A Practical Guide.”

Smith continues to work as a supervising attorney at the clinic.

Now, the Tenant Law Project is seeking additional attorney volunteers. The commitment is expected to be only once every three months.

The training will take place Feb. 16 from noon to 1 p.m., with a light lunch included. It will be held in room 529 at Cooley's Grand Rapids Campus. Registration is required by Feb.14, and the RSVP can be addressed to Cooley’s Karen Rowlader, who has been instrumental in setting up the clinic, by emailing her at rowladek@cooley.edu.

Spring, whose job it is to spread the word to tenants, says that referrals have come from a variety of sources. The Legal Assistance Center narrowly leads the list, but people have heard about it from the Internet, from state agencies, from Disability Advocates of Kent County, from newspapers and several other places.

She also emphasizes that KCRA will be monitoring tenant complaints to see if issues which can be addressed by advocacy rise to the top. Spring is charged with moving such advocacy forward if so.

“We aren’t seeing too many renters here due to their landlord being foreclosed,” says Spring, who was formerly the Director of the Foreclosure Response Team, “but it appears that the foreclosure crisis of the past few years has resulted in more people renting.”

 Funding from Dyer-Ives foundation and Grand Rapids Community Foundation made the Tenant Law Project possible.

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