Emily Benfer

Wake Forest Law students (from left to right) Sophie Barry-Hinton (JD ’22), Katie Merlin (JD ’22), Olivia Osburn (JD ’22), and Mary Virginia Long (JD ’22) at an on-site workshop offered by the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic at the Downtown Health Plaza in Winston-Salem.

White House convening recognizes collaboration between Wake Forest’s law and medical schools to address the eviction crisis in the wake of COVID-19

In the wake of the housing and eviction crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a call to action to the legal profession to address access to justice and increase housing stability in communities across the nation.

Nearly five months later, at a virtual event on Jan. 28, Wake Forest Law student Katie Merlin (JD ’22) spoke to senior administration officials about Wake Forest Law’s efforts to swiftly answer that call by partnering with Wake Forest School of Medicine and others across the University and local community to respond to the crisis and provide legal services to Winston-Salem residents at risk of eviction.

The virtual event convened and recognized the 99 law schools who answered the call to action, and included remarks from Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo, and Senior Advisor to the President and American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling, among others.

“You have assisted your clients and your communities at a time when they needed it the most, when our country needed it the most,” said Garland, addressing the law school deans, students, and clinical professors in attendance. “I thank you for the work you have already done, but I know I do not need to tell you that there is so much more to do.”

It was a point also underscored by Gupta, who said she was inspired by the impact that attendees had made on their communities.

“The infrastructure you have built to respond to the attorney general’s call will prove critical as the Justice Department continues to work to increase access to justice for all Americans,” said Gupta.

As a third-year law student who helped organize Wake Forest Law’s response, Merlin recounted how Wake Forest Law Dean Jane Aiken quickly mobilized the law school’s Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic and Pro Bono Program to implement eviction prevention efforts in partnership with Wake Forest School of Medicine, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, and Legal Aid of North Carolina.

“I am incredibly proud of the efforts of our law students, faculty members, and University and community partners and their dedication to serving those at risk of eviction in our community,” said Aiken following the event. “At its core, our role as lawyers is to use our skills, knowledge, and talents to deliver effective and equitable legal services and respond to the call for justice, especially in times of crisis. All those at Wake Forest Law and the numerous other law schools that have contributed to eviction prevention efforts are a testament to the meaningful impact we can make, especially when we come together to provide much-needed support.”

Ahead of her remarks, Merlin was introduced by Emily Benfer, a Senior Policy Advisor to the White House and the American Rescue Plan Implementation Team who is currently on a leave of absence from her position as a visiting professor of law and public health at Wake Forest. Benfer began laying the foundation for the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic in 2020, working with Dr. Kimberly Montez, assistant professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest School of Medicine, who co-directs the Health Equity Certificate Program and directs the Health Justice Advocacy Certificate Program in conjunction with Wake Forest Law.

“As health care providers, we increasingly recognize that unmet legal needs negatively affect patient and family health, including housing instability and eviction,” said Dr. Montez. “Lawyers are important members of our health care team. The Medical-Legal Partnership has expanded our toolbox to not only provide more effective health care to all children and families, but better equip medical students, residents, and faculty with the knowledge and skills to address health-harming legal needs.”

Over the past five months, 64 law students collaborated with Wake Forest University undergraduate and medical students, as well as local medical providers, to provide more than 820 hours of direct outreach and representation serving 110 households.

“Our collaboration with frontline health care providers enabled us to reach those high-risk families and create a holistic, community-wide approach to the housing crisis,” Merlin told attendees. “Together, we ensured the families had the foundational rock and security of a home at a time when the risk of homelessness was at its height.”

For Associate Clinical Professor Allyson Gold, who directs the law school’s Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic — a collaboration with Wake Forest School of Medicine, Wake Forest Baptist’s Downtown Health Plaza clinic, and Legal Aid of North Carolina — it was clear that connecting individuals in need with Emergency Rental Assistance was the most direct and timely way to protect tenants from the imminent threat of eviction.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the affordable housing and access to justice crises, placing millions of people across the country at risk of homelessness and displacement. When I joined the Wake Forest Law faculty in July 2021, it became clear that the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic could respond to the attorney general’s call to action by helping clients exercise their rights to Emergency Rental Assistance,” said Gold. “I have been so impressed by our law students. They immediately heeded the call, collaborating with community partners and students from the School of Medicine and College of Arts and Sciences to implement a holistic approach to tenant advocacy, while working to achieve housing justice and health equity.”

Implementing a multi-faceted approach, clinic students partnered with Forsyth County’s ERA program to create dual-language flyers and posters, educate the community, and — with medical and undergraduate students — host application assistance workshops in an effort to increase the program’s visibility and accessibility for tenants in need. The clinic also trained more than 50 Wake Forest Baptist medical providers at the Downtown Health Plaza clinic, a community health center whose patient population is predominantly low-income individuals and families, many of whom are best served in Spanish, to screen patients for eviction risk and refer them to the law school’s clinic for help with ERA applications and other legal assistance.

For Monica Brown, associate director of operations for the Downtown Health Plaza, having law students on-site that could directly assist patients with their applications was essential.

“Because of our longstanding and positive efforts with the Medical-Legal Partnership, it was an easy ‘yes’ to offer a legal clinic specifically aimed at helping our patients remain in their homes during the pandemic,” said Brown. “Our patients face enormous stressors on a daily basis, so any time we can make resources available and remove barriers to fully utilizing that resource, it is a win-win for everyone involved.”

Students participating in Wake Forest Law’s Pro Bono Project also collaborated with Legal Aid of North Carolina to develop know-your-rights flyers and a housing law manual for tenants and pro bono attorneys.

Merlin described how working to provide legal assistance to those at risk of eviction has been transformational for her, sharing the story of one client who she helped to avoid eviction in November 2021.

“I know I will never forget the relief in his voice when I called to tell him that his application had been approved, and that he and his family would be able to spend the holidays at home without fear of displacement,” said Merlin.

It’s among the experiences that contributed to Merlin’s decision to dedicate her career “to the pursuit of housing and health justice and equity, and ending the cycle of trauma associated with eviction.”

“I think for all of us here today, this work and the lived experiences of our clients will continue to guide us in the unyielding effort to achieve housing security and equal justice,” said Merlin.

In his remarks addressing the law school attendees, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff underscored their role in amplifying the importance of expanding access to justice.

“Your work is just so vital right now, because right now as we speak, for so many people representation is literally the difference between keeping a roof over their family or being pushed out into the streets,” said Emhoff.

View the White House fact sheet on law schools’ responses to the Attorney General’s Call to Action to the Legal Profession.

View a recording of the virtual event.

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.

White House_By David Everett Strickler_Unsplash

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.

view of residential buidings, a street scene

Wake Forest University School of Law Contributes to National Study on Housing Loss

Forsyth County highlighted in a groundbreaking report released today from New America

(Winston-Salem, N.C. – Sept. 9, 2020) – Nearly 5 million Americans lose their homes through eviction and foreclosure each year, and the numbers this year are expected to be higher as tens of millions lose jobs due to COVID-19 and the economic downturn. The Future of Property Rights Program at New America, in partnership with Wake Forest University, Wake Forest University School of Law, and Winston-Salem State University have been conducting research to understand where housing loss is most acute across the nation, with a spotlight on Forsyth County to determine who is most impacted and why.  Continue reading »

Mattresses and household goods piled against garage door, illustrating eviction

Wake Forest Law prof urges Congressional action to halt eviction crisis

The United States may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history, a new report published today finds. Wake Forest Law Professor Emily Benfer and her co-authors say without swift and significant federal intervention, the ripple effect of this unprecedented catastrophe will harm generations. Continue reading »

Exterior photo of Wake Forest Law building

Wake Forest Law Welcomes New Faculty Members

(Winston-Salem, N.C., May 21, 2020) — Wake Forest University School of Law welcomes four new full-time faculty members and a visiting professor for the 2020-2021 academic year. Their experience will bolster Wake Forest Law’s classrooms and clinics in areas ranging from health justice to environmental issues to food law policy and legal writing.
Continue reading »