Behind the Scenes of The Housing Justice Project

This article was written by Sydney Rogers-Morrell, Development Coordinator.

Within Legal Aid of Nebraska, there is an experienced team of paralegals and attorneys working for the Housing Justice Project (HJP).  The project is dedicated to addressing the housing needs of low-income Nebraskans statewide by demanding protections of foreclosure and eviction rights, ensuring low-income housing is safe and habitable, and working to develop new community-based efforts to help families access affordable housing.

Legal Aid aims to keep Nebraskans in their homes because having safe, affordable housing shouldn’t be just a privilege but a basic human right. Housing Justice Project Attorney Caitlin Cedfeldt said “preventing evictions can be the difference between keeping custody of a child and maintaining employment.” Losing your housing can take so much more than just your home – from self-worth and favorite memories to your personal belongings and ability to be safe.

“Preventing evictions can be the difference between keeping custody of a child and maintaining employment.”

In 2021, Legal Aid provided legal assistance that helped low-income individuals and families in nearly 3,000 housing-related cases statewide. To boost the impact, collaboration with partners and volunteer attorneys is essential to ensuring more Nebraskans have a place to call home. The Housing Justice Project works with the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) and the Nebraska Housing Assistance Fund (NHAF) to provide resources and funding to keep people in their homes. NHAF provides funding to homeowners who, due to COVID-related reasons, are behind on their mortgage, property taxes, and other housing-related issues to prevent foreclosures. When a homeowner lacks financial resources, legal remedies are often limited when facing foreclosure. With NHAF, clients are able to obtain the financial assistance to catch up on mortgage payments and the legal help needed to keep their homes.  The collaboration is a win-win for Nebraska homeowners. Legal Aid’s Housing Justice Project was honored to receive recognition of its work by NIFA with their 2022 “Making a Difference” Award.

Amy Van Horne, Legal Aid of Nebraska Board of Director’s President and Ryan Sump with the Tenant Assistance Project in Douglas County.

Providing legal assistance to prevent families from being evicted has long been a focus of Legal Aid, and became crucial during the pandemic. In addition to providing legal assistance, Legal Aid’s HJP conducts outreach and education to partners and those facing eviction about tenant rights, emergency rental assistance, and other resources. Legal Aid’s HJP also collaborates with the Tenant Assistance Project (TAP) to provide eviction prevention and defense assistance to tenants in Douglas and Lancaster counties. TAP, a homelessness prevention program managed and facilitated by the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer’s Project, ensures that when tenants facing eviction arrive at the courthouse, they can consult with and be represented by a pro bono attorney the day of their hearing. Before TAP, tenants would show up unrepresented and often agree to an immediate eviction because they didn’t know there were any other options, such as Legal Aid.   With the help of TAP in these two Nebraska counties, cases are often resolved without any further legal assistance needed. However, if a case needs additional expertise and attention, TAP can refer the case to Legal Aid’s HJP.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of cases that staff closed with some level of service increased by 67%.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of cases that staff closed with some level of service increased by 67%. With such high demand on housing-related cases, Legal Aid often reaches out to local attorneys who are willing to volunteer their time to help clients throughout the state. Coy Clark, an attorney at the law firm Jacobsen Orr Lindstrom & Holbrook in Kearney, recently assisted in a Housing Justice Project case where he kept a client in their home. When asked why he decided to help, Clark said, “It appeared to be a situation where the tenant may not receive a fair outcome, absent the assistance of an attorney.” Clark said he found the experience to be fulfilling and without Legal Aid’s intervention, this client would probably not have seen this positive outcome.

“It appeared to be a situation where the tenant may not receive a fair outcome, absent the assistance of an attorney.”

The work that the Housing Justice Project is doing not only helps Nebraska today, but it helps ensure low-income Nebraskans have the ability to live in safe and affordable housing long-term. Recently, Legal Aid has worked on two cases heard before the Nebraska Supreme Court, both challenging the constitutionality of the tax sale laws in Nebraska. Under Nebraska law, counties can sell property tax liens to private parties when homeowners fall behind on their real estate taxes. Regardless of how much equity a homeowner has in their property or how small the amount the owner owes in taxes, state law provides that the county can take their property and all of the equity in it and transfer it to a private purchaser who pays the unpaid taxes. By paying the delinquent taxes and any subsequent taxes, these private parties take ownership of the property after three years if the property owner fails to redeem the taxes within that three-year timeframe.  While both cases had unfavorable outcomes, Legal Aid is committed to fighting for the property rights of low-income Nebraskans.

In the case of Continental Resources v. Kevin L. Fair, Mr. Fair plans to seek review in the United States Supreme Court, where he will be represented by Pacific Legal Foundation with Legal Aid of Nebraska as local counsel. Scott Mertz, Director of the Housing Justice Project, said “the main goal of the case is to protect the rights of Mr. Fair, who we believe has been unconstitutionally deprived of his rights, resulting in the loss of his home of 27 years and the $50,000 in equity he had it in for owing property taxes worth far less than the value of the equity in their home.  The ultimate outcome of this case has the ability to not only keep the client in his home and prevent equity theft, but to help all Nebraskan homeowners by changing the system.”

The Housing Justice Project works to bring fair and equal justice for people facing housing related issues. The hard work done by this team is preventing friends and neighbors from losing their housing through foreclosure or eviction and by creating long-term improvements to housing opportunities across Nebraska.

Please consider donating to Legal Aid of Nebraska to help ensure our work to provide equal access to justice continues. Visit www.legalaidofnebraska.org/donate/.

 

 

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