As Wave of Evictions Hits Tenants, Volunteer Attorneys Step in to Help
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
March 3, 2022, 11 a.m. ·
Three times a week, people on the verge of being thrown out of their homes arrive in the noisy lobby of the Omaha-Douglas Civic Center outside Courtroom 20.
Mala Thomas stands with her daughter near the elevators, bundled in winter coats. Her landlord issued an eviction notice, ordering her to appear in court today.
"We're going to get evicted from the house," she says with a voice that betrays her difficult circumstance. "Actually, it's my fault. I have cancer, so trying to do both the rent and the (medical) payments, and I just couldn't."
It's a stage-four breast cancer diagnosis. That would be enough to bust many a household budget, but Mala's husband recently had a stroke. She came to court believing she had no options left.
"I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go."
The one thing she knows is she does not want to end up in a homeless shelter with her husband.
As the pandemic pushed forward, it drove a wave of evictions from homes and apartments in Nebraska, especially in the state's two largest cities.
With the courts being the last stand for many facing eviction and homelessness, a group of volunteer attorneys stepped up to work as a bridge between landlords deserving a rent check and money-strapped tenants at risk of eviction.
For almost a year, little dramas played out at courthouses in Lincoln and Omaha, with everything at stake for the participants.
In the middle of March, the number of cases reached the highest they'd been since the start of the pandemic, according to Mike Horacek, director of Together, Incorporated, a non-profit helping tenants who face eviction and hunger.
"I think we're potentially looking at a perfect storm this year when you talk at food insecurity and housing," Horacek said, surrounded by tenants, landlords, and attorneys waiting for their time in court. "In terms of Together (Inc.) and the amount of people we're serving and the amount of rental assistance we've provided, it's the highest on record that we've ever seen in the last 24 months."
Mala wasn't aware of all the other people lining up with their eviction notices that day. As she discussed her options with her daughter, a woman in a red wool blazer appeared, asking the pair if they would like an attorney to help her. No cost. They looked a little confused but agreed it might help.
Laurel Herr Dale, the woman in red, said, "Give me a second, and we'll have an attorney contact you." Dale directs the volunteer lawyers helping with the Tenant Assistance Program, sponsored by the Nebraska State Bar Association.
"We gathered volunteer attorneys who were willing to assist low-income tenants with their eviction hearings," Dale explained. "We got them to come to the courthouse and provide on-site representation the morning of the hearing."
Most of the tenants arrive without legal representation. Most of the landlords hire attorneys to be here.
According to Dale, this week was especially chaotic out in the lobby and inside the courtroom, a sign many are facing financial stress.
"We see that bearing out in eviction court. Often, when folks have financial issues, the first thing, they're unable to pay us their rent."
The scene inside Courtroom 20 can be disorienting for those who've never encountered a judge. It seems especially frantic today because Judge Thomas Harmon has a mere 90 minutes to pass judgment on nearly 50 cases. It's a matter of determining which tenants broke their contracts by not paying rent and who should be given more time to settle their accounts.
He belts out the name on each case, sometimes three or four times, to make sure the tenant has an opportunity to make their case.
Outside Courtroom 20, Mala met her volunteer attorney, Katie Martens. They did a quick review of the circumstances and what options they had.
"What do you want to do here?" Martens asked. "I go off of whether or not you want to get out or not."
Mala responds, "No, no, I like the house." She said they'd put a lot of work into it even if they didn't own it.
"OK. Well, let's try to stay," said Martens and proceeded to explain how that could happen.
There is federal money rental assistance available. Mala may be eligible.
"Once you get the application approved, they'll pay everything for 15 months," Martens explains. Mala seems surprised. She started an application weeks before but kept putting off completing it.
Laurel Herr Dale said it's a frequent issue at eviction court. "When they get here, thankfully, we're able to finish that process for them and get those funds paid directly to the landlord."
A laptop set up with a video conference links directly to a specialist helping tenants fill out the paperwork. A special help-line for social service agencies can assist anyone with questions once they get home.
When attorney Martens says it's time to go into court, Mala blurts out." Oh, my God!" "There's no reason to be worried," the attorney says. "I'm standing next to you."
With a little last-minute advice, they head into court. The judge yells out the case number.
"CI-22_1281. Red Key Real estate versus Mala Thomas."
The landlord's attorney tells the judge if Mala receives rent assistance, she and her husband can stay put. That's the extent of the discussion.
Judge Harmon looks pleased another case moves to the settlement pile.
"Anything else, Ms. Martens? Then you are excused," the judge says.
And that's it. Minutes later, Mala is back in the lobby, looking a little stunned and clearly relieved with the news that rent assistance will buy her an additional 15 months in the same home she and her husband have grown to appreciate.
"That'd be good," she says, "because we got everything packed, boxes and everything." She's asked if she was convinced she'd be out on the street after court today.
"Yeah. I did. I really did." The relief is noticeable on her face.
This was just one day, and Dale, the director of tenant assistance, does not foresee any slack in the need for the program.
"We will continue to see it, I think, for probably a couple of years or so to come. You know, I don't think we're out of this anywhere closely yet."
When the program began, she called it "eviction defense." Now she calls it "homelessness prevention."
Her data shows nine out of ten cases handled by the volunteers have avoided eviction.
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