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New Help for Those Threatened with Eviction

Feb. 21, 2017
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Low-income tenants facing eviction have a new resource in the Milwaukee County Courthouse. The Eviction Defense Project, launched by Legal Action of Wisconsin, volunteer local attorneys and community partners, will provide free legal advice and representation on Monday and Thursday afternoons.

Legal Action of Wisconsin obtained a grant from the national Legal Services Corporation and attracted volunteer attorneys, who began seeing clients in January. Thus far, more than 50 clients have had legal help with their housing issues, according to Raphael Ramos, the Eviction Defense Project’s coordinator.

“The key for us is trying to help stabilize the situation for these families or individuals,” Ramos said. “And to make sure that they feel they have had an opportunity to be heard in court.”

The legal assistance fills a gaping need in Milwaukee’s legal system. Impoverished tenants threatened with eviction typically represent themselves in court, where they face a landlord who has far more resources at their disposal. Unlike criminal cases, indigent defendants in eviction cases, which are civil matters, don’t have the right to court-appointed counsel, according to Wisconsin law. 

“There are about 12,000 eviction filings a year in Milwaukee, and a lot of those are against people who are pro se, who don’t have representation,” Ramos said. “It’s a tremendous number. It’s an awful number.”

Ramos said that three volunteer attorneys answer clients’ questions, draft documents and attempt to negotiate a resolution with the landlord. The attorneys ensure that landlords are following the proper eviction process, and will try to find creative ways to settle the case and keep the tenant in their home, perhaps by dedicating some of their tax refunds to their back rent or by working out a payment plan with the landlord.

“Of course they have to pay for their place to live,” Ramos said. “But we try to find a way to do so that’s realistic, so that they don’t put themselves in a position where they’re going to get evicted again in a week. That’s a really hard, really delicate dance to do. The clients are so precariously positioned sometimes.”

An additional volunteer attorney represents clients before a judge when necessary. Eviction cases are heard in small claims court, where Judge Ellen Brostrom presides.

Brostrom said the volunteer housing attorneys are an added benefit to the court.

“Lawyers are always a service to the court and a service to the process,” Brostrom said. “Some pro se litigants are more able to understand what’s relevant and sort of succinctly communicate what the court needs to know than others. I think the whole process is more streamlined for all the parties involved because you’ve got basically an officer of the court helping to deal with any particular case.”

The Eviction Defense Project is a collaboration of Legal Action of Wisconsin with the Legal Services Corporation, the Milwaukee Justice Center, Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, Marquette University, Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Community Advocates, Quarles & Brady and additional volunteer attorneys.

National Spotlight on Milwaukee’s Housing Crisis

Ramos said the project gained momentum after the publication of Matthew Desmond’s highly acclaimed Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which shone a spotlight on Milwaukee’s low-income housing crisis. Desmond found that most low-income renters pay up to 80% of their income toward their housing, leaving little for basic necessities and making these renters vulnerable to eviction.

Desmond’s original research on Milwaukee’s renters found that one in eight had experienced at least one forced move in the previous two years. About half of those moves were informal evictions that didn’t go through the court system. The rest were split between formal, court-ordered evictions and landlord foreclosures. 

Desmond found that the eviction crisis was most acute in the central city, hitting African American mothers with children in the home the hardest. 

Ramos said housing instability has a negative impact on the entire family’s independence and well-being.

“If you have kids in public schools who don’t have access to a steady, stable home environment, and they’re constantly switching schools, that’s incredibly burdensome on a child,” Ramos said. “Then, for parents, they’re trying to find employment, but they can’t identify a place where they live. It’s very problematic. And once you have an eviction there’s also the issue of the cycle of evictions, where it becomes harder to rent, harder to find places.”

Ramos said the Eviction Defense Project can help renters who are facing a court-ordered or informal eviction. The project is housed at the Milwaukee Justice Center in the Milwaukee County Courthouse, 901 N. Ninth St., Room G-9. Hours of operation are Monday and Thursday, noon-3 p.m. For more information, go to legalaction.org or call 414-918-3566.

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