Law Student Advocates Fight Foreclosure in Blighted Communities


On any given Saturday in West Grove, Miami, you can find residents relaxing in their front yards, playing a game of dominoes under the shade of palm trees or taking leisurely walks around the neighborhood park. Nestled between Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, two of the most affluent areas in South Florida, this calm and quaint area is home to some of the most beautiful natural scenery in Miami.

However, the wealth of the neighboring communities has seemed to simply skip over West Grove. Deserted homes litter every street, causing passers-by to comment on the boarded up doorways and overgrown weeds. Intimidating notices hang on the abandoned properties, warning trespassers of potential arrest and fines. Giant signs beg the community to report area drug dealers.

To make matters worse, the West Grove, like many other Miami communities, is facing a new problem in the form of the foreclosure crisis. Tenants and homeowners living in the area usually don't know who they can turn to for help if they receive a notice telling them to vacate their homes immediately.

That's where Miami Law's Community Lawyering Clinic steps in.

Armed with 400 flyers, a map, and a clipboard, law students Tony Guo and Komal Vaidya recently hit the streets of West Grove, going door-to-door to alert residents of their rights when facing foreclosure as a part of the multi-state educational student organization called Project No One Leaves (PNOL). Before leaving, they hand community members flyers broadcasting the "Tenant and Homeowner Know-Your-Rights Workshop," to be held at a neighborhood church later that week.

"When this crisis first became apparent, banks weren't accustomed to being landlords, and they argued that tenants needed to be evicted for a speedy resale," says Guo, a 3L Community Laywering Clinic Fellow.

But what banks and residents alike did not know was that in 2009, President Obama signed into law the "Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act," which provides limited protections for those facing foreclosure during the nation's economic crisis. Florida currently has the nation's highest inventory of homes in distress, accounting for nearly 1 out of every 4 foreclosure properties in the country, with no end in sight.

"Often times, tenants believe that once the property enters into foreclosure, they have to leave right away and that they do not have the right to property maintenance," 3L Vaidya says. Vaidya is also a fellow in the Community Lawyering Clinic. "Our canvassing and know-your-rights workshops dispel such common misconceptions and help tenants preserve and exercise their rights."

"PNOL has given me the opportunity to put my passion to practical use. Being able to tailor a project around renters' rights specific to Miami's low-income communities has been a rewarding experience. More importantly, PNOL has made me optimistic about the possibility to make an impact," Vaidya says.

Supervised by seasoned public interest attorneys Chuck Elsesser and Purvi Shah, the Community Lawyering Clinic partnered up with PNOL to effectively notify tenants and homeowners of their rights at foreclosure through the use of public education and canvassing. PNOL started at Harvard Law School, and is now at Miami Law, one of the only other law schools in the country to have a chapter.

Throughout the year, Community Lawyering Clinic students canvass different Miami neighborhoods that have been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, like Liberty City, Overtown, and Little Haiti. Through their access to foreclosure listings, they compose a mapped list of homes. Then, they go door-to-door. Sometimes they are the first people to tell tenants or homeowners that they are facing foreclosure.

At the door, tenants are invited to attend a know-your-rights workshop, conducted by students in the Community Lawyering Clinic and Florida Legal Service attorneys. The workshop educates the public on the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, as well as pertinent landlord tenant law. Because maintenance issues are taken care of by building owners, tenants often live without heat, hot water, or air conditioning once the homes are in foreclosure. Broken doors and windows cause security issues. Infestation of roaches, rats, and bedbugs create horrific conditions that make life hardly bearable. The workshop helps tenants learn how they can exercise their rights under federal and state law.

Besides helping community members educate themselves about their rights, Project No One Leaves has offered other surprising benefits for students, no matter what field of law they practice.

"It gives me the experience I need to be successful as an attorney," 2L Community Lawyering Clinic intern Nabeel Basit says. "What I gained from working in PNOL are my people skills. I no longer feel shy or nervous when talking to others, and this will really benefit me when I deal with clients in the future."

For more information on Project No One Leaves, click here. 

For information on the Community Lawerying Clinic, click here.