As the nation’s eviction crisis persists, Wake Forest Law faculty and students join White House summit in search of solutions
Posted: August 18th, 2021 | By: Amelia Nitz Kennedy
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.
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