Tenants' Rights Clinic student Hanna Burt, 2L, left
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, 25% of families in Miami-Dade County told the U.S. Census Bureau that eviction or foreclosure is either very likely or somewhat likely to occur in the next twelve months. Miami Law’s Tenants’ Rights Clinic, based at Legal Services of Greater Miami, continues to give students a hands-on learning opportunity to represent these families facing eviction and homelessness.
Because of the pandemic, the clinic operated remotely during the semester. Students quickly learned how to engage with clients and opposing parties virtually, and to remain up to date on the COVID-related protections for tenants and constantly changing rental assistance programs. In September 2020, the Center for Disease Control enacted an eviction moratorium to prevent the spread of the disease. The CDC moratorium only protected certain tenants in certain circumstances, so clinic students had to learn the nuances of the CDC order and determine whether it would protect their clients. In addition, throughout the semester, the students had to stay abreast of several cases filed by landlords challenging the CDC eviction moratorium.
Even with the CDC moratorium, landlords continued to file evictions, and the Miami-Dade Police Department began evicting families again in large numbers starting in March 2021. Clinic students helped many families navigate this new legal environment.
For example, Catherine Perez, 2L, represented a tenant whose household became ill with COVID-19. Unable to work because of the illness, the family fell behind on their rent. Just as the family recovered from COVID and began working again, the landlord filed an eviction. The clinic stepped in and agreed to represent the client. Perez negotiated an agreement with the client’s landlord, which stayed the eviction proceedings and gave the family time to obtain rental assistance to repay the past due rent.
“I am so grateful for the clinic’s help as I am not sure how I could have reached an agreement with my landlord on my own,” said the client. “English is not my first language, and the court process is incredibly confusing. I am glad that someone was able to guide me in my native language through the negotiations.”
Critical to avoiding eviction was the significant influx of rental assistance from the federal government. In March 2021, Miami-Dade County began administering $61M of emergency rental assistance. Clinic students helped their clients apply for and obtain this emergency rental assistance which was a lifeline that kept many families from becoming homeless.
“Although the clinic experience has been completely virtual, it has been extremely rewarding as students are still given the opportunity to interact directly with clients, draft documents, and engage in meaningful work to help those who need it the most,” said clinic student Danielle Hall, 2L, who spoke about her work helping a family avoid eviction.
In addition to the practical experience obtained by representing clients, the clinic’s classroom component helped the students learn the law and develop their legal advocacy skills. Additionally, several Miami Law alumni spoke to the students about their perspective on evictions and how COVID impacted their work, including landlord attorney Michael Birnholz, J.D.’00; County Court Judge Scott Janowitz, J.D.’05; and Rob Collins, J.D.’11, from HOPE Fair Housing Center.
Although most of the work was COVID-related, students worked on other issues as well. For example, Hanna Burt, 2L, and Hall worked with a tenant association at a HUD-subsidized property to ensure the landlord provides adequate security at the property.
Clinic students will continue to help local tenants, whether this pandemic, while at the same time developing practical skills which will help them as they begin practicing law.
“As we slowly enter a post-pandemic world, Zoom and work from home are likely to stay,” says Anoosheh Shaikh, 2L. “Through the clinic, I have gained the skills and confidence to interview clients, have meetings with opposing counsel, and efficiently advocate for my clients all while working online.”