Blog: Pro Bono

Welcome to LCBH’s Blog. Our blog delivers original articles written by our staff, interns and volunteers. We strive to provide informative stories about the work we do on behalf of Chicago renters and the issues renters face.

Lacy Burpee at the help desk

This month, we decided to sit down with staff attorney Lacy Burpee, an Equal Justice Works Foreclosure Fellow to find out a little more about the work she does at the Tenants in Foreclosure Help Desk at the Daley Center.

Lacy, you are an attorney as well as an Equal Justice Works Foreclosure Fellow, can you tell us where you went to law school and more about that program?
I attended DePaul University College of Law. After graduating, I was selected as one of four Equal Justice Works (EJW) Foreclosure Fellows. This fellowship is a three year position, which is funded by the Attorney General through the mortgage foreclosure settlement. The purpose of these fellowships is to provide services to people impacted by the foreclosure crisis. In my work, I primarily assist tenants who are living in apartment buildings that are going through foreclosure. I spend most of my time at the Tenants in Foreclosure Help Desk, which is located on the 14th floor of the Daley Center, where many eviction courtrooms are located.

Pro Bono Keeps Talented Lawyers on TAP

What’s better than winning a case in eviction court? Not having to go to eviction court in the first place! That’s the philosophy behind the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) at LCBH. TAP relies exclusively on volunteers to resolve landlord-tenant disputes before they escalate, with the goal of keeping tenants in their homes and out of court.

For many months, LCBH was forced to reject many TAP cases that came in because there weren’t enough resources to handle them internally. Last fall, we began a partnership with the West Cook Pro Bono Network (WCPBN), an Oak Park-based group of attorney moms and solo practitioners looking to balance their passion for pro bono with the demanding requirements of family life. Every week, one or two WCPBN members sign up to be “on call” for LCBH and handle any TAP cases that come in that week. WCPBN volunteers are able to work from home on their own schedule and our clients are able to get great pro bono representation from a team of experienced and talented volunteer attorneys.

Since October, WCPBN volunteers have handled almost 20 TAP cases for LCBH! Here are a few highlights of their work:

Couple struggle with housing issues

Do you remember how long your last lease was? A page or two? It probably wasn’t 20+ pages, the typical length of a lease for a resident of subsidized housing in Chicago.

What’s in those lengthy leases? Rules. To qualify for subsidized housing, residents must go through a rigorous background check and application process.

Once approved, residents are asked to sign paperwork agreeing to abide by a comprehensive set of rules. Any violation is grounds for eviction.

Many of the rules that these residents must abide by seem quite reasonable. There are the standard prohibitions on noise and damage. There are bans on criminal conduct, drug use, and gang activity. But other rules seem unnecessarily restrictive, especially to anyone used to the freedom of the private housing market. The following are actual rules enforced in some Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) properties:

Volunteer Spotlight: Sean Mines

The Evolving Pro Bono Attorney
Sean Mines

Sean Mines is in his third year as a volunteer with LCBH. During that time he has volunteered over 200 hours with us and worked on dozens of cases. That’s quite an impressive feat for someone who isn’t even a litigator in his day-to-day job! What got this transactional attorney away from his desk and into the court room?

Sean began volunteering with LCBH back in 2010. He was intimidated by the prospect of appearing in court, but was also committed to developing his legal skills. After researching several different pro bono opportunities, he decided LCBH’s program would be the best fit for him.

Sean started out covering basic court appearances. First a return date. Then a status date. Once he felt comfortable stepping up in court, he began to cover more substantive hearings. Sean kept coming back to LCBH because of the hands-on nature of the work and the supportive staff. “I could see immediately the impact of my work and everyone was so appreciative of my efforts.” Sean also appreciated that pro bono attorneys were invited to attend intake meetings and included in discussions about which cases to accept.

An Evening at the Fair

LCBH was thrilled to take part in the 19th Annual Chicago Bar Association (CBA) Young Lawyers Section’s (YLS) Pro Bono and Community Service Fair, hosted at the law offices of Kirkland and Ellis LLP. LCBH was among 50 other Chicago-based legal aid and community organizations offering pro bono opportunities to new and seasoned legal professionals.

The LCBH table was a popular spot during the fair, with a steady stream of attendees stopping by for information. LCBH staff and Young Professionals Board members were available to answer questions and to discuss the many different ways to support LCBH’s work.

Over 20 individuals signed up for more information on pro bono opportunities with LCBH and many more stopped by with questions about LCBH in general.Between the Pro Bono training sessions held at the LCBH office on October 26th and November 15th, we hosted 16 prospective volunteers eager to jump into housing advocacy! We look forward to working with all of our new volunteers over the coming year.

Thank You

In September, Eunice (see volunteer spotlight this issue) won a great victory for one of her clients’ and for LCBH. The clients were a couple whose landlord had filed an eviction against them for nonpayment of rent. They explained that they only started withholding rent payments when the landlord ceased to maintain their building

The landlord’s neglect rendered the building uninhabitable. It was infested with mice and bedbugs, the electricity was unreliable, and the hot water worked only late at night. There was mold throughout their unit; some of the windows were broken and were never repaired. The landlord refused to fix any of the conditions despite repeated requests both by the couple and the City. Upon review of the case, Eunice also discovered there were security deposit violations.

In response to the eviction, LCBH filed defenses and counterclaims against the landlord based on his mismanagement of both the building and the clients’ security deposit. Initially, the landlord wanted to go to trial but soon discovered it would not be successful. Eunice negotiated a very nice settlement for her clients and was also able to get the eviction case sealed to protect her client’s credit rating. Thanks to Eunice’s hard work and sharp negotiation skills, her client was able to use that money to move into a new apartment and have a fresh start!

Eunice Lee (left) with Pro Bono Coordinator Samira Nazem

Last October, we at LCBH had the good fortune of Eunice Lee stumbling upon our table at the Kirkland & Ellis Pro Bono Fair. She recalls meeting LCBH Legal Director Mark Swartz and listening to a persuasive sales pitch and promise that if she came to LCBH she would be in court litigating in no time.

As a recent law school graduate looking to gain courtroom experience, the offer sounded intriguing and Eunice signed up to volunteer. Now, one year later, Eunice has dedicated over 600 hours of her time to helping renters through serious housing problems. She says that the friendliness of staff and volunteers and the flexible office environment have kept her coming back.

Looking back over the last year, Eunice says her favorite part of working at LCBH is talking to clients and hearing their stories. “It’s easy to take your comfortable living situation for granted,” she says, but working at LCBH has opened her eyes to individuals and families whose situations are far more tenuous. She was shocked to learn how easy it is for landlords to take advantage of families who do know they have legal recourse, but is glad that they have somewhere to turn. “I’m glad LCBH is here to help. There is nothing like direct representation for empowering a family in crisis.”

Why Pro Bono with LCBH?

We Love Pro Bono

Calling all attorneys! Did you know that volunteering pro bono with LCBH will help you live longer, become richer, and solve world hunger? Well maybe not, but it can help save a family in crisis from homelessness, develop your legal skills, and create new professional relationships.

The need for pro bono services at LCBH and across the country is now greater than ever. The Legal Service Corporation’s Pro Bono Task Force estimates that while 62 million, or one in five, Americans qualify for civil legal assistance, as many of 80% of those who seek it will be denied aid because of insufficient resources.

The American Bar Association encourages each attorney to donate at least 50 hours of service per year. By donating just a few hours of time, a pro bono attorney can help shrink the justice gap and provide much needed support to a family in need.

With the help of volunteers, LCBH is able to impact the lives of over over 7,000 Illinois renters each year. In the last month, our volunteers saved a single mother’s Section 8 voucher, protected an immigrant family from a threatening landlord, and stood up to a bank so eager to evict a tenant that it refused to afford her due process.

LCBH staff attorneys are always here to help you, so whether this is your first pro bono engagement or your hundredth, we will provide the training, resources, and support you need to ensure a positive experience for both you and your client.

Sharon King Receives First Legacy Award

Kathy Clark Honored as Tenant Advocate of the Year
Kathleen Clark and Sharon King

As LCBH looks forward to the year ahead, increasing staff and services that will reach many more renters throughout Illinois, it is a bittersweet time as we say so long to two very important people who have been a part of the LCBH family for a very long time. Sharon King and Kathy Clark both retired this year; each leaving a legacy that sustains the agency well into the future ensuring many more people will have meaningful access to the judicial process to provide safe, decent affordable housing for their families.

Noah Magaram

Noah has always been interested in social justice and progressive politics. His senior quote in high school was “politics is the shadow cast upon society by big business.” He decided to go to law school at DePaul College of Law when he realized that attorneys could have more impact than only protecting powerful interests. In the winter of 2011, Noah came to LCBH as an attorney-of-the-day volunteer.

Noah notes that a volunteer doing minor things for tenants disproportionately impacts their lives in a positive way. Keeping a tenant from facing homelessness may at times simply require a mundane transfer order. Many abusive landlords will often back off once they hear that the tenant simply has representation.

Noah’s first start to finish case was to help a tenant living in a foreclosed home. He got them $1400 in a deal with the bank, and the tenant referred to him as acting like the biblical Noah saving them from a flood. Noah has made countless contributions to LCBH since then including helping a tenant with disabilties stand up to an abusive landlord who was charging her for utility bills on a building that she did not live in. He secured time and money to move out and protected her from further abuse by removing her name from those utility bills. The deal allowed the tenant and her family to move on in their lives with a clean slate and no contact from the abusive landlord.