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As the nation’s eviction crisis persists, Wake Forest Law faculty and students join White House summit in search of solutions

The economic impact wrought by COVID-19 forced millions of people into the crosshairs of eviction — a life-altering event that can reverberate throughout a person’s life, harming their financial security, housing stability, and health for years to come. And as eviction moratoriums across the country hang in the balance, many more are at risk of losing their homes unless public officials respond quickly to prevent and divert evictions, and help ensure that the more than $46 billion in federal emergency rental assistance makes it into the hands of the tenants and landlords who need it.

It was with these pressing needs in mind that Wake Forest Law faculty and students participated in the White House’s virtual Eviction Prevent Summit on June 30, which brought together government, judicial, legal, housing, and community leaders to develop plans to prevent eviction in communities across the country.

Emily Benfer, a visiting professor of law and public health at Wake Forest who also chairs the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Eviction, Housing Stability, and Equity, collaborated with the White House to support planning for the summit and was among the experts who presented on eviction prevention best practices at the event.

Since March 2020, Benfer has comprehensively tracked federal, state, and local pandemic responses related to eviction and housing, and partnered with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University to create the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. The ongoing research, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is supported by an interdisciplinary team that includes Wake Forest Law students.

“In light of the unprecedented $46 billion in rental assistance, and the unique ability of the courts and policymakers to divert cases, we have an unparalleled opportunity to both prevent housing loss among struggling families and stabilize small property owners,” she told the summit’s participants, who represented 46 high-eviction-risk cities nationwide including Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem.

Benfer, along with Wake Forest Law Professor Christine Coughlin and Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor Eleanor Morales, facilitated three of the breakout discussions at the summit, which focused on how sectors and organizations within each city were currently responding to the eviction crisis, as well as ways to create new or enhance existing eviction diversion and prevention programs in their communities.

Eviction diversion programs bring together the public and private sector to provide people with wraparound services that can help prevent housing loss, such as legal representation, mediation, rental assistance, support from the courts and legislature, and social services, among other interventions. The goal is twofold: to divert cases away from the court system — a solution that 70% of landlords prefer, according to a June 2021 survey conducted by the ABA and Harvard Law School — and ultimately to keep people housed.

The legal system in particular can play a critical role in diverting eviction, according to Benfer.

“Especially because this is the last point of intervention before irreparable harm to tenants, courts are critical to preventing the severe and lasting damage caused by the eviction filing alone,” she said.

More than three dozen Wake Forest Law students also had the opportunity to help prepare materials for the summit, as well as witness the development of eviction crisis interventions firsthand as they assisted facilitators with logistics and documented the commitments the participants from each of the cities pledged to make.

Katie Merlin (JD ’22) worked with Benfer to compile information about the eviction crisis in each city represented at the summit to inform the breakout discussions. She described how that research underscored for her the stark contrast between how well-positioned some cities are to address the eviction crisis compared to others, and the importance of events like the summit in facilitating meaningful discussion among those who are able to make a difference. The ability to see “progress in action,” as Merlin described it, also gave her hope for the future.

“Having had family members who have faced the threat of eviction this past year, seeing a group of individuals so dedicated to providing relief for their communities was both inspiring and comforting,” she said.

And as an aspiring public interest lawyer, she said the opportunity to be a part of events like the summit are what drew her to Wake Forest Law in particular.

“I think that this signals to current and future students who are interested in public interest law that Wake Forest Law is dedicated to truly embodying pro humanitate, and is constantly taking steps to ensure that we are living up to that creed,” said Merlin.

Jada Saxon (JD ’22), who is also interested in pursuing a career as a public interest lawyer, said that seeing such a wide range of individuals who were a part of the summit broadened her perspective on what she could do with her law degree.

“This experience in particular gave me insight into how you can be a lawyer without being in a courtroom and practicing law how you generally see it,” she said. “Coming in, you know your JD is versatile, but until you see it, it doesn’t really have the full impact on you.”

The impact of seeing the summit unfold firsthand also brought a new lens to examine legal concepts learned in the classroom for Breanna Miller (JD ’22).

“It’s different than just reading a case and how the court decided to handle it. These are actual people in the community trying to grapple with the situation,” she said. “What stuck with me was the genuine concern that people were bringing to the table on this issue.”

That sentiment was also echoed by Michael Amato (JD ’22), who said the summit provided an opportunity for students to apply themselves in ways they may not get to solely in the classroom.

“I definitely gained an appreciation for just how complex these issues are,” he said.

It’s a kind of complexity that inherently requires collaboration — the benefits of which Sam Brady (JD ’23) says he saw while supporting the facilitation of breakout discussion of the summit. This past year, Brady served as a co-coordinator for the COVID-19 Housing Eviction Project, an effort of Wake Forest Law’s Pro Bono Project in which students created pro se tenant and practitioner manuals detailing the eviction process in North Carolina to help people stay housed in light of the eviction moratorium. Many of the students who participated in the summit have also been involved in the more than a dozen Pro Bono Project efforts available to Wake Forest Law students.

“You can get as far down a path as you can go where you feel like you’ve explored it from every perspective, but getting people who had devoted a lot of their professional lives to this subject from one perspective together in a room to hear it from the other person’s perspective seemed to unlock so much more possibility,” said Brady.

The mission of Wake Forest Law is to advance the cause of justice by creating knowledge and educating students to meet the legal needs of the world with confidence, character, and creativity. We instill in students a respect for the law, a devotion to the ideal of service, and a commitment to professional values. We educate students from around the world in a richly diverse, equitable, and inclusive community. Learn more at law.wfu.edu, and stay up to date on what’s happening in the Wake Forest Law community by following us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Stephen Hawthornthwaite (left), the co-founder, CEO, and chairman of Rothy’s, showcases the company's line of shoes at a farmers market pop-up. (Photo courtesy of Rothy's)

Wake Forest Law alumnus Stephen Hawthornthwaite is shaping the future of sustainable fashion, one plastic bottle at a time

From an early age, Stephen Hawthornthwaite (JD ’96) was sure of three things: he wanted to start a successful company, do the right thing, and give back to society. What he didn’t anticipate however was that at the age of 41, he’d embark on a multi-year journey to launch what Forbes has called one of the next billion-dollar-startups — which is not only profitable, but is also actively shaping the future of sustainability in the fashion industry.

Hawthornthwaite, a Wake Forest Law alumnus, is the co-founder, CEO, and chairman of Rothy’s, a sustainable lifestyle brand transforming recycled materials into timeless shoes, handbags, and accessories with nearly no waste. Since launching in 2016, Rothy’s has diverted millions of plastic water bottles from landfills and over 200,000 pounds of marine plastic from oceans — 3D knitting recycled plastics into comfortable, stylish essentials.

The idea for Rothy’s — the name of which is a combination of Hawthornthwaite’s nickname, “Hawthy,” and the name of his co-founder, Roth Martin — was borne out of the co-founders’ desire to start a company that would solve a complex problem and their recognition that the increasing “casualization” of fashion was a trend that was here to stay.

“We had a shared vision around a great product that could be for everybody,” said Hawthornthwaite. “The original concept was to create a front-of-the-closet shoe that was an easy choice that a woman could wear first thing in the morning, into the evening, and carry her throughout her day.”

But the pair also knew they had to innovate.

“We didn’t want to be just the thousandth manufacturer of women’s flats,” he said.

And innovate they did, though in the face of one major challenge: neither co-founder had any experience in the footwear industry. But that, Hawthornthwaite says, is one area where his experiences at Wake Forest Law helped him find solutions.

Learning to distill and synthesize volumes of information into a simple, compelling argument prepared him for the work he would do to understand the landscape in both the footwear and knitting industries, and to chart a clear path forward for Rothy’s.

“There’s not a day that goes by in my current role that I’m not thankful to have a law degree,” he said. “I’m right where I wanted to be, which is I know the right questions to ask, and I know when to get an attorney involved.”

As he learned more about the footwear industry, Hawthornthwaite was struck by how much waste was produced in the typical manufacturing process, where material is traditionally die-cut into pieces that are then stitched together, resulting in excess material that isn’t put to use.

The 3D-knitting technology that Rothy’s developed and uses in its factories allows the company to seamlessly knit the upper portion of each of its shoes as a single piece, eliminating much of the waste created in a more typical footwear production process.

Hawthornthwaite had also observed that sustainable products of the past were often lower-quality or less fashionable. With that in mind, he believed that solving for those two drawbacks alone would engage more people in making sustainable purchases, whether that was their primary intent or not.

“If we make a great product that’s beautiful and comfortable, there are going to be people who really don’t care about sustainability, but they’re going to buy it because it’s beautiful and comfortable,” said Hawthornthwaite. “If you can deliver a great product that’s compelling without asking the customer to really sacrifice something in the process, then you’re driving change.”

Part of the company’s ability to produce such a product in a way that also aligned with its environmentally conscious mission hinged on Rothy’s having its own factory in Dongguan, China.

“To really execute on sustainability, to really be sustainable through and through, by definition you have to own your factory,” Hawthornthwaite said. “We built from the ground up with that in mind, and when you own your own factory, you’re really controlling the process. You’re controlling the waste. We know how our people are treated.”

Navigating the challenges of establishing the Rothy’s factory, and the company more broadly, was another area where Hawthornthwaite points to his legal education as particularly influential — especially what he learned in courses like tax law, corporate law, and real estate law.

“To anyone who is thinking about doing something else with their law school career, absolutely consider it,” said Hawthornthwaite. “A law degree is invaluable in any number of industries.”

What began as a women’s footwear company has now evolved into a brand that also produces handbags, accessories, and most recently, a line of men’s footwear launched in May 2021. As it has grown, Rothy’s has made great strides in sustainability, and the company’s mission to continuously do better for people and the planet has led it to set its sights on something even more ambitious: closing its loop through circular production, which it hopes to achieve by 2023.

“So many of the products that are produced don’t really have an end-of-life strategy. Because we own our factory, we can design for end-of-life. Our most complex shoe probably has seven [materials] total, and that enables us to start to recycle shoes, and then reuse that material in the production of new shoes and be fully circular,” said Hawthornthwaite.

It’s a vision that aligns with Hawthornthwaite’s fundamental belief “that people are good and that they want to do good things for society” — a belief that’s reflective of the pro humanitate spirit of Wake Forest Law graduates.

Listen to Wake Forest Law’s conversation with Stephen Hawthornthwaite on The Legal Deac podcast, where he talks further with Professor John Knox and Executive Director of Marketing Jorge Reyna.

The mission of Wake Forest Law is to advance the cause of justice by creating knowledge and educating students to meet the legal needs of the world with confidence, character, and creativity. We instill in students a respect for the law, a devotion to the ideal of service, and a commitment to professional values. We educate students from around the world in a richly diverse, equitable, and inclusive community. Learn more at law.wfu.edu, and stay up to date on what’s happening in the Wake Forest Law community by following us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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