“A stable home is the cornerstone of holding people together. If you don’t have a safe place to go back to at the end of the day, it’s hard to stay in school or hold a regular job. If we can help people stay grounded in their community, it’s really important.” Jessica Hunt Bareis (J.D. ’19)
Actually providing a stable home is not something Hunt Bareis and fellow volunteer Monica Bai (J.D. ’18) can do for the renters facing eviction they serve at the Housing Court Assistance Center. What they can do is make lives less chaotic by helping renters navigate the system, allowing time to find new housing before their belongings land on the street.
That assistance can be critical for people facing eviction. The eviction notice orders tenants to appear in court, but most don’t know what to do. The first and best step is to write an answer to the eviction notice, and that’s whereHunt Bareis and Bai help. Their work, guided by attorneys, is a good fit for these students interested in real estate law as a career.
The Housing Court Assistance Center grew out of the Answer Clinic, which served evicted tenants but closed after about a year when the supporting fellowship ended.
After exploring options, representatives from Georgia State Law’s Center for Access to Justice, Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, Lawyers for Equal Justice and the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless formed a consortium, each using their distinct roles, to continue helping tenants with evictions.
Shortly after the center’s opening in October, Atlanta’s CBS46 news reported that Metro Atlanta’s eviction rates are the highest in the country. But consortium participants already knew the situation was dire, and they knew they could help.
The first month their courthouse office was open—only two days a week for three hours each day— Housing Court Assistance Center staff saw 18 clients each day. Forty-four of the 68 people who visited received assistance filing their answers.
The Center for Access to Justice’s new pro bono program connects students with short-term volunteer work. “Jessica and Monica are two of the most committed students in the program because they go every week,” said Darcy Meals, assistant director for the Center for Access to Justice. “Their service not only allows them to develop skills and legal knowledge, but they’re also having a direct – and positive – impact on tenants’ likelihood of success in court.”
Bai appreciates that the Housing Court Assistance Center offers immediate assistance to those who walk in. “We ask them their stories and help them understand how they should respond.”
Volunteering is gratifying for Hunt Bareis. “It’s cool to see law stop being just a textbook and seeing it actually work for people,” she said. By observing the attorneys, she is learning to listen to a person’s story with an ear tuned to pick out ways to help.
These are the interviewing skills Andrew Thompson, Housing Court Assistance Center attorney, wants student volunteers to learn, as well as learning to interpret legalese for their clients.
“I also want students to see public interest law as a rewarding career path that affects people’s lives,” he said.
Housing Court Assistance Center staff members feel good about their efforts. One success story is that of an elderly couple with an eviction notice from the boarding house they moved into after losing their possessions in a flooded storage unit. The rooming house had “bed bug issues,” so they lost their furniture again. They arrived at the center with their eviction summons.
“We got them enough time to find another place to live,” Thompson said. “We can file the answer and can prevent homelessness. The looks of relief are amazing.”