Students Represent Clients and Receive Hands-On Experience with the Tenants' Rights Clinic

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Law students often want the opportunity to represent clients in court, but that can only happen if they have completed the lengthy background check to become a Certified Legal Intern.

Stephanie Koether handing a resident a flyer about an upcoming tenant meeting.

Even without CLI status, students in the Tenants’ Rights Clinic have the opportunity to represent clients during informal administrative hearings at local housing authorities. Stephanie Koether, a 3L student in the 2016 Tenants’ Rights Clinic who does not have CLI status, successfully represented two clients at administrative hearings and she turned that experience into a paid law clerk position.

Administrative hearings are informal proceedings where low-income tenants often face the potential loss of their homes or the loss of rental assistance. These hearings have relaxed procedural and evidentiary rules and are conducted by staff at the local housing authority. Even with these limitations, these hearings provide clinic students with an opportunity to have a “mini-trial” with opening and closing statements, witness examination, and the introduction of evidence.

During Koether’s first administrative hearing, she represented an elderly client living in public housing who wanted to move to another unit. Miami-Dade County denied her request to transfer to a first-floor unit at another public housing site. Koether developed a theory that the client was entitled to the transfer as a “reasonable accommodation” under the Fair Housing Act. The client had physical disabilities which made it difficult to reach her 4th floor apartment when the elevator was broken, and she had a mental disability which made it difficult for her cope with harassment by other tenants. 

At the hearing, Koether argued that the transfer was necessary for the client to use and enjoy her housing. Koether took testimony from the client and her live-in aide, both of whom testified about the client’s disabilities and the need for the transfer. Despite initial reluctance by members of the hearing panel, the hearing panel ultimately agreed with Koether’s argument and ruled that the client was entitled to a transfer under the Fair Housing Act.

“The opportunity to represent a client in an administrative hearing was invaluable to me," says Keother. "I was able to develop my advocacy skills while at the same time help a client whose voice would have never been heard without our representation.”

Koether had another opportunity to represent Letitia Hall, a single mother of two, who was facing the loss of her Section 8 voucher. The Section 8 voucher program is a federally-funded program that helps make housing affordable for low-income tenants. The housing authority alleged that Hall had an unauthorized boarder in her Section 8 assisted unit and alleged that she engaged in criminal activity.

Koether prevailed at the hearing by proving that the boarder lived elsewhere and by arguing that an arrest, where criminal charges were dismissed, are not evidence of criminal activity. Hall was able to keep her rental assistance.

"I appreciate all the work Stephanie did, I wouldn't have been able to get through the hearing on my own," Hall says. "She saved my housing for my family. If she weren't there to help us, we would have ended up homeless."

Based on her experience and success as a clinic student, Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc., hired Koether as a paid law clerk so she could continue her advocacy on behalf of low-income tenants. During the summer, Koether began working with public housing residents who wanted to exercise their rights under federal law to form a resident council because of concerns with management. During several resident meetings, Koether educated the tenants about their rights and the steps to form a resident council. The residents expect to form the council, create by-laws and hold the first election by the end of the year. Students in the 2017 Tenants’ Rights Clinic will continue Koether’s work to help these tenants as they stand up for their rights as public housing tenants.