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STCL Houston Participates in Virtual White House/DOJ Meeting that Offers Gratitude for Work to Address Evictions Crisis

Home Law School News STCL Houston Participates in Virtual White House/DOJ Meeting that Offers Gratitude for Work to Address Evictions Crisis

South Texas College of Law Houston representatives participated Friday morning in an invitation-only joint White House and Department of Justice virtual meeting to recognize law schools’ “laudable and swift response” to an August 2021 call to action to address the housing and eviction crisis.

Last year, STCL Houston did not wait for a national call to action to begin addressing the eviction crisis. In fact, when South Texas President and Dean Michael F. Barry received the letter last August from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking for the legal community’s assistance, he quickly responded that STCL Houston already had been working on the eviction crisis for several months — and would continue to do so.

“The mission and goal of our exceptional legal education is to prepare South Texas graduates to serve their community and the profession with distinction,” Barry said. “When our faculty and pro bono clinic teams recognized the need to fight evictions last year, they jumped into action, and I am so proud of their service helping some 5,000 people (in 1,659 households) avoid evictions and stay in safe housing.”

The South Texas individuals participating in Friday’s virtual meeting were Dean Barry, Associate Dean for Experiential Education and Professor Catherine Greene Burnett, Public Interest Attorney and Adjunct Professor Eric Kwartler, Paralegal Jasmin Lopez, Coordinator Ramses Dominguez, and three South Texas alumni: Clinton Morgan ’20, Gaspar Gonzalez ’21 and Kathryn Tavakoli ’21.

Administration officials hosting the event were Garland, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Adewale Adeyemo and a number of others. The discussion underscored the importance of efforts by law schools to fight evictions in the past few months and described the need to secure access to justice and housing stability in the months ahead.

“Law students and lawyers from across the country stepped up to take on cases, and assisted their clients and communities at a time when our country needed it the most,” Garland said.

In the past few months, law schools drew on resources, such as pro bono and externship programs, clinical offerings, and the service of the larger law school community to help struggling families avoid eviction through rental assistance application support, volunteering with legal aid providers, helping courts implement eviction diversion programs, among other initiatives aimed at increasing housing stability and access to justice.

STCL Houston’s efforts have been primarily coordinated through the Landlord/Tenant Clinic, which is one of more than 20 pro bono
Randall O. Sorrels Clinics at South Texas. Since mid-2021, 45 students, several full- or part-time attorneys, one paralegal, two coordinators and 10 part-time recent graduates have provided 9,000 hours of pro bono service to 1,659 households. These efforts were made possible, in significant part, through a generous donation to South Texas from the Harris County Constable Precinct One Foundation.

“We have done good work, and there is no end to the work in sight,” said Kwartler, who teaches the Landlord/Tenant Clinic and has recently been representing clients in court when fighting with landlords to avoid evictions.

Here is an overview of some of the relevant work by STCL Houston faculty and students:

  • During the 2020 CARES Act moratorium, South Texas faculty and students conducted an in- depth investigation of eviction filings in Harris County and found that 24% of those filings were in violation of the moratorium. This research received national attention and led to changes in the way landlords in Houston approached compliance with the Act.
  • At the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020, South Texas College of Law Houston assembled the Eviction Defense Coalition, a collaboration between Houston’s three law schools and the two primary legal aid providers in the city, to coordinate a response to the looming eviction crisis.
  • The Eviction Defense Coalition now provides a right to counsel in eviction cases in Harris County thanks to STCL Houston’s leadership. South Texas students and attorneys guarantee access to legal representation for tenants in one of the highest-volume eviction courts in the country.
  • Shortly after the CDC announced its eviction moratorium, STCL Houston partnered with the Harris County Constable Precinct One Foundation to create two major initiatives to help Harris County tenants fill out CDC declarations—an extended-hour hotline and a series of community drive-thru clinics. Those initiatives later transitioned into a larger effort by STCL Houston, local government agencies, unions and faith-based partners to help struggling tenants apply for federal rental assistance programs.
  • In addition to assisting and representing tenants facing eviction, the faculty also serve as resources for eviction attorneys statewide and train advocates to effectively combat the ongoing eviction crisis. In January 2022, South Texas hosted and trained more than 120 legal- service providers from across the state in an online program focused on lawyering skills needed in eviction defense.

“Our faculty, clinic staff and students have dedicated themselves to these families, giving of their time and expertise with great passion,” said Burnett. “They care about each of these individuals, and they don’t want to see one family forced to live in their car or on the street. This is not just legal work to our South Texas teams. It is about assisting people, and they know their work really matters to each man, woman and child who is able to stay safely in their home because of their efforts.”

The event Friday was a reminder of the continuing and critical need to help families remain in safe housing. Garland noted, “Today, our work is far from over, and making real the promise of equal justice under law remains our urgent and unfinished mission.”

For more information about the pro bono clinics and their important work, visit here.

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