Community Law Program helps tenants through mediation program
End of housing eviction moratorium could bring new challenges
Nicole, who is raising two grandchildren, was struggling. Her work hours at Spectrum baseball field, the Clearwater spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies and the home park of the Phillies’ Class A Clearwater Threshers, were declining because of reduced attendance caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then several players and ballpark workers contracted the virus, adding worries.
With money tight, Nicole was having trouble paying her rent and more trouble finding help.
Finally, she heard about the Community Law Program, a St. Petersburg-based legal aid office funded by the Pinellas Community Foundation and affiliated with the St. Petersburg Bar Association. She qualified for the CLP’s Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program, which provided money to help with back rent payments.
She also found a new job as a home health aide providing more financial stability.
Ashlea was working for a taxi company but found her hours reduced because of the pandemic, even before two bouts of illness with COVID-like symptoms — one of which forced her to miss 14 days of work. Without enough money, she had to cut back on rent payments, making partial payments to the best of her ability.
Ashlea also found the CLP diversion program.
“It was extremely stressful not to know if you would have a place to sleep,” she said. “Getting help from CLP’s PEDP allowed me to sleep again and feel completely whole.”
She’s also back to her regular hours at the taxi company.
Kimberly Rodgers, executive director of the Community Law Program, said the office began last fall to help with the growing number of eviction cases resulting from the coronavirus outbreak. There were two interrelated problems: job losses and cutbacks made it difficult for many renters to afford their rent and the closing of most in-person court operations ended access to an existing in-person eviction mediation program.
And while a federal eviction moratorium remains in effect, a state moratorium ended.
“We wanted to provide a mechanism for mediation to still occur particularly in light of the fact there was CARES Act [the first pandemic federal relief bill] money available to pay past rent on behalf of tenants,” Rodgers said. “We started hosting mediations in a virtual setting using Zoom. That was the primary component of the Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program.”
The sessions were moderated by county court certified mediators, she said.
CLP, which initially got funding from The Florida Bar Foundation, built the program using a variety of community resources and organizations. The Pinellas Opportunity Council, also funded by Pinellas Community Foundation, funneled CARES Act rental assistance money to qualifying tenants in the mediation program. CLP is also funded by Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg through community development block grants.
One of CLP’s intake specialists is a Stetson University College of Law student and with that contact, Stetson law students began working with the program to get required pro bono hours for graduation.
“They have helped search our Pinellas County law records, to look for potential tenants that we can reach out to,” Rodgers said. “The law students would identify potential tenants, then our street outreach team would go find these tenants and put flyers on their doors.”
Sometimes tenants were easier to locate. Landlords who had gone through the mediation program and been paid because of the rental assistance program would refer other tenants facing the same problem.
“We had the mechanism to get that quickly paid through the mediations, and we were also trying to ensure that tenants whose leases were expired or about to be expire would have some ability to convince their landlords to renew their leases, so they wouldn’t get evicted once the payment ran out,” Rodgers said.
In addition, CLP worked with the Homeless Leadership Alliance, which “was able to provide individuals — called housing navigators — who would help people look for alternative places to live in cases where landlords would not allow them to stay or in cases where mediation wasn’t effective. They were able to rehouse about 100 families,” she said.
And since CLP started its mediation efforts last October, “We were successfully able to mediate about 600 cases,” Rodgers added.
The diversion effort has drawn notice. A recent study by the Urban Institute’s Housing Crisis Research Collaborative looked at 47 tenant assistance programs across the county. It rated the CLP diversion program as one of the top two reviewed.
The program may soon face its greatest challenges. The Center for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium is set to expire June 30, and Rodgers suspects it will not be extended.
“If the moratorium is lifted, we anticipate a huge influx of people,” she said. “If people haven’t availed themselves of getting past due rent, all the rent they owe will come due and it will cause more evictions.
“We will have a need to continue, whether it be for the purpose of providing mediation and also continuing the emergency legal assistance to get folks in a position of being able to access those funds.”
Rodgers said Pinellas County recently set up an online portal for eviction cases, and CLP is training tenants to use that, although it can take somewhat more time than the mediation process.
“The beauty of the system before is the money was available fairly quickly,” she said. “Through the new portal the county has launched, it’s taking several weeks. We will have to reach out to landlords and convince them to be patient….
“[With the end of the moratorium] there clearly may not be enough money available for the sheer need that might be out there. There is enough money available right now as we speak.”
The Community Law Program was founded in 1989 by members of the St. Petersburg Bar Association as a place for members to do pro bono.
The program has grown since the pandemic from a staff of about seven to around 14, Rodgers said, and about 100 lawyers a year volunteer.
“Our two main areas of need, as pretty much exists for all legal aid, are family law and housing,” she said. “Family law is usually number one, but housing is now number one because of the pandemic.”
Besides those two, the agency also handles a wide-range of issues that affect lower-income and elderly clients, including probate for the latter.
“People think that poor people don’t have a need for probate because they don’t have assets, but that’s not accurate,” Rodgers said. “You have multiple generations of people living in the same house. When one person passes away, if the title isn’t transferred properly, it causes problems later on.”
Another CLP program helps qualify youths aging out of the state’s foster care system for benefits to help them adjust. Veterans can get help with wills and advanced directives and nonprofit organizations can get assistance on transactional legal issues.
Clinics are offered on elder law matters, general civil concerns, unemployment, bankruptcy, and other matters.
“In a typical non-pandemic year, we provide legal assistance to about a thousand people every year. Less directly, we help around 3,500 [through education and other services],” Rodgers said. “We’ve probably helped about 2,000 people directly since the pandemic.”
More information about the Community Law Program can be found at www.lawprogram.org, or by calling 727-582-7480.