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JALA offers statewide DIY eviction defense website

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Jim KowalskiAn open source software platform developed by a legal aid attorney in Pennsylvania, expertise from lawyers at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and other legal aid housing attorneys around the state, and a lot of keyboard time for a JALA paralegal and summer intern have resulted in a do-it-yourself eviction response program for Florida residential tenants.

The program is linked to The Florida Bar’s website and by legal aid offices around the state as the state faces an escalating number of evictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession.

“The main thing we’re focused on with FloridaEvictionHelp.org [the website for the DIY process] are two tools,” said Jim Kowalski, executive director of JALA. “The first tool is an answer builder for pro se eviction tenants that enables them to construct the answer [to an eviction action], affirmative defenses, especially the affirmative defenses that relate to the Center for Disease Control declaration.”

The second part allows users to fill out that declaration, which is part of the CDC order — intended to combat the spread of COVID-19 — that allows tenants to forestall an eviction if they have lost income, become sick, or had exceptional medical expenses.

“If you have the CDC declaration active…once the person executes that and sends it to their landlord, if their landlord does go ahead and sues [for eviction], then the answer builder [in the program] incorporates the fact of that service of the CDC declaration,” Kowalski said.

That the site works with the current CDC process for delaying evictions is a testament to its ability to adapt. When FloridaEvictionHelp.org started in the summer, it was designed to work with federal eviction moratorium orders from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and in Florida from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“We’ve had multiple iterations,” Kowalski said. “Initially it was built with a combination of the governor’s moratorium and the federal moratoriums that were governed by the types of mortgages the landlords had.

“When the governor’s moratorium expired, which I believe was in August, we pivoted and rewrote all of the code behind the scenes,” he continued. “When the CDC put out its order [replacing the earlier federal strictures], we configured that again” including adding the declaration in the CDC rules.

The rapid adaptability is because of the open-source software, called Docassemble, used to write the program. Docassemble was developed by Jonathan Pyle, an attorney with Philadelphia Legal Assistance, as a tool for legal aid offices to develop such efforts.

“He’s an amazing guy,” Kowalski said.

Mary DeVries, head of JALA’s housing unit, JALA Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Garrow, staffer Virgil Bachtold, paralegal Aylmar Thompson, and summer intern Jack Ford did the work assembling the program, writing the questions, checking to see that everything worked, with Thompson and Ford doing much of the actual writing, Kowalski said.

Housing attorneys from other legal aid offices around the state also provided expertise, he said.

The program was updated with every change to the governor’s executive orders and with each modification by HUD and then the substantial change with the CDC order became the controlling federal standard.

“We got really good on working on stuff [reprogramming] over the weekend,” Kowalski said.

He noted the CDC order was announced on a Wednesday and formally published two days later. The updated website was ready the following Monday or Tuesday.

JALA also had experience from prior efforts, Kowalski said. It had done earlier programs with Docassembly to assist tenants who had issues with needed repairs that had not been made by landlords and which allowed tenants to construct the notice to landlords needed before rent could be withheld or the lease terminated.

JALA also has a low-bono program, Family Law at Reduced Expense [FLARE], designed to help those who are between 200% and 400% of federal poverty guidelines (which is too much to qualify for legal aid), and an immigration program.

Another unique feature of the eviction program, Kowalski said, is that unlike other legal aid DIY programs it is not housed on FloridaLawHelp.org, which is maintained by The Florida Bar Foundation.

That site, he said, uses Supreme Court approved forms, while those on FloridaEvictionHelp.org have been modified to keep up with the fast-changing eviction moratoriums. Another concern is the Task Force on the Distribution of IOTA Funds has recommended that the Foundation’s IOTA funds be limited to providing direct legal services for low-income Floridians. If that is adopted by the Supreme Court, it might leave the Foundation without financing to maintain FloridaLawHelp.org and other technology programs.

FloridaEvictionHelp was funded by a grant from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

So far, the site has attracted 2,579 users who have conducted 3,332 sessions with the site. And it may be increasingly needed.

Kowalski said a recent Department of Justice opinion reversed what had been earlier guidance that moratoriums applied in cases where leases expired. Now landlords can seek evictions when leases end and he noted between March — when moratoriums started — and the end of year 75% of leases will expire.

Another problem is tenants don’t know about the protection of serving the CDC declaration on landlords and in some cases in which they do, landlords claim it doesn’t apply.

A recent county court ruling in Collier County, Kowalski said, upheld the validity of the CDC declaration staying a writ of possession.

“I don’t think we’ll see the tsunami [of eviction actions] until January,” he said.

Kowalski has written an article about evictions on the ABA’s Law Practice Today website.

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