January 31, 2012

FOCUSING ON PRO BONO: The Detroit Systemic Pro Bono Initiative

Leor Barak

It is often said that one person can change the world. While this is true, it is also said there is strength in numbers. There is power in collaboration and partnership that can have a lasting impact in a community. This is evident in Detroit's Systemic Pro Bono Initiative (DSPBI), launched in 2010. Detroit has a generous community of law firms and lawyers, each doing their part in pro bono and public interest work. However, Detroit is facing many "systemic" issues which could not be addressed by any one law firm or lawyer.

Accordingly, in 2010, the DSPBI was launched to tackle these systemic issues. This effort was organized by Heidi Naasko, Pro Bono and Diversity Counsel at the Dykema law firm. The DSPBI consists of three initiatives. Each initiative has partners, collaborators, supporters, and resources available to it. Here is a brief look into the collaboration.

Micro Enterprise Law Collective (MELC)

Small businesses, or microenterprises, are critically important to economic development in any geographic area. Detroit, being severely economically depressed, is no exception. Supporting small business in Detroit will lead to economic growth, and lawyers can have their impact in this regard. MELC was created to address the lack of legal resources to small businesses in Detroit.

MELC connects low income entrepreneurs and businesses located in low-income areas with skilled business counsel. The advice and assistance of experienced business lawyers increases the chances that a small business will be successful, thereby bringing economic growth to Detroit.

This program is still in its infancy, but has already engaged numerous attorneys and served several small businesses. There is clear potential for growth given the need and the support received from partner organizations in Detroit. Dickinson Wright PLLC attorneys have taken the lead in designing and implementing the initiative and coordinating volunteers. Rick Haberman began the effort, and Dickinson Wright associate Sherry D.O. Taylor has taken over since Haberman joined the ACLU staff as an education and advocacy attorney.

Fight Blight and Substandard Housing

As with many urban areas, Detroit is faced with many blighted vacant properties as well as substandard housing owned by slumlords and occupied by low-income tenants. This significantly and negatively impacts individual tenants as well as the community as whole. These two situations increase the potential for crime, reduce property values, and prevent redevelopment of our cities.

To address these issues, this initiative has two tracks. One would work with local nonprofit community organizations to abate the nuisance of vacant properties, and the other would work with tenants in a substandard apartment building to make the building habitable.

On the first track, Community Legal Resources (CLR) and volunteer attorneys will represent community organizations against a property owner to abate the nuisance caused by vacant properties in a target area. The volunteer attorney would contact, correspond, and negotiate with the owner of a blighted building to abate the nuisance. The scope of work runs the gamut from writing letters and having meetings to filing a private nuisance action.

On the second track, the Legal Aid and Defender Association, Inc. (LADA)( Not to be confused with the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, or NLADA) and volunteer attorneys will represent coalitions of tenants against slumlords to make buildings safe and habitable. The scope of work includes writing letters to the property, advising the tenants, and filing lawsuits to force code compliance. The roster of volunteer attorneys is being developed and this initiative is being ramped up in the near future.

Fight Discriminatory Housing Policies

Based on LADA's input, the Discriminatory Housing Policies subgroup was formed to address unfair housing policies implemented by several Detroit-area housing commissions. For example, housing commissions routinely deny public housing or Section 8 vouchers to elderly applicants because of a 30-year old conviction, such as graffiti, which have no relation to their character as a tenant. The result is that people who should be eligible for housing are unable to obtain housing, resulting in homelessness and despair. These unfair practices prevent low-income individuals from obtaining safe, decent affordable housing in a particular geographic area.

Attorneys from General Motors and Dykema have already begun to research, analyze and address these unfair practices by working with the municipalities. Dykema's Naasko indicates the effort may involve seeking information under the Freedom of Information Act. These efforts are in the early stages, but volunteers have already identified several issues which, if resolved, can improve housing accessibility to those in need.

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Through the three programs of the Systemic Pro Bono Initiative, it is inspiring to see several firms and numerous attorneys coming together to make a positive difference regionally. Since, I started this article with a couple of clichés, let me close with one: The DSPBI is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Leor Barak

Leor Barak is Community Legal Resources' Legal and Policy Program Manager. Community Legal Resources delivers free legal services to nonprofit organizations building neighborhoods in Detroit and throughout Michigan.