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October 21, 2020

Jacksonville’s pro bono volunteers fight evictions

Stable housing, which is critical to steady employment, children’s success in school, good health and financial independence, for too many has become unstable in the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawyers in Jacksonville, Florida, are volunteering to meet the challenge of evictions in their vicinity.

The Eviction Defense Self-Help Project, a clinic held by Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA) every Wednesday afternoon from 1-5 p.m., is not only helping tenants, but is staffing up with pro bono lawyers on call for an expected spike in evictions in the new year, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions ends on Dec. 31.

The project, now in its second year, came about when JALA housing attorneys, who mainly handle cases about subsidized housing, noticed they couldn’t also accommodate the questions they received regarding private landlords.

The self-help project, funded with a grant from the Florida Bar Association, was born, with JALA housing attorney Suzanne Garrow overseeing the clinic and providing training, mentoring and support to its pro bono volunteers.

Here’s how the clinic works:

  • Tenants of private landlords who receive an eviction summons and who may have defenses complete the Florida Justice Technology Center’s Pro Se Eviction Defense Answer form, with assistance from pro bono attorneys as needed.
  • Tenants are directed where and how to file their answer that same day at the courthouse.
  • Tenants receive guidance regarding the hearing process and how to present evidence in court.
  • Tenants needing assistance with rental conditions issues are assisted in taking steps to get conditions in their home corrected and are counseled on when they have a legal right to withhold rent.

JALA, whose origins go back to the Great Depression, partners with law firms (the Jacksonville office of Smith, Gambrell & Russell is a major participant), solo attorneys and other volunteers to staff the clinic, which is by appointment only and since March has been mainly by phone and Zoom.

Missy Davenport, JALA’s director of pro bono, says law firms are asked to supply one to two attorneys one Wednesday afternoon per month to assist pro se tenants. Attorneys are encouraged to consider representing clients in either a full or limited capacity, especially those who may be harder hit by eviction, including persons with disabilities, single parents and senior citizens.

The project appeals to law firms, Davenport says, because the pro bono commitment is well-defined, training is provided, and younger lawyers can get excellent client interviewing, representation and litigation experience with short-term matters.