• Karima Muhammad

My 1st Day Serving at the Housing Court Assistance Program: Eviction Defense March 2, 2021

Updated: 7 days ago

Yesterday, I volunteered at a local housing court assistance program. The housing assistance program, sponsored by a legal aid organization, provides legal advice to people facing eviction from their homes.

I was nervous about going on this internship because I didn't know how others would perceive me as a Muslim woman. The last time I had to go to court to file a document for the lawyer I worked for was uncomfortable, and the court staff was unwelcoming.

I decided to take public transportation to the court building because I assume it would not be easy to find a car park. It was raining so I drove to the train station.

Upon boarding the train that early morning, I noticed several people sleeping horizontal, and the train spelled terribly. I thought about the irony of my going to court to help people facing eviction and maybe homelessness, and on the train traveling to do this work, homeless people are sleeping on the train.

After getting off the train, I had a seven-minute walk to the court building. I must walk uphill to reach my destination, which taught me how out of shape I was since I haven't walked anywhere since COVID-19. As I approached the court building, a church that hosted a homeless shelter was just across the street from the court's entrance. There were several tents pitched alongside the sidewalks with homeless people living in them. Yes, tents of homeless people. As you may be asking yourself, why would these phenomena exist near the court building? Well, the court building's sidewalks were clear of tents and homeless people, as law enforcement made sure of that.

I finally made it to the court's check-in security booth to have my briefcase scanned and have my temperature taken. I proceeded to the housing court assistance center and signed in to assist the supervising attorney.

Many people lined up for assistance, and we began providing information and analysis of their eviction case. We discussed the eviction protections mandated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the supervising attorney provided limited-scope legal advice.

Under the CDC protections, there is a stay of eviction until March 31, 2021. However, people facing eviction must complete the CDC form and qualify, submit the form to the court, and copy their landlords.

Ultimately, the CDC stay on eviction will only provide more time to the tenant to relocate if a writ of possession is ordered by the court, as eviction will resume April 1, 2021.

Mediation may assist both the tenant and landlord resolve the eviction issue before the judge hears the case. Resolution can be more time to move out or a payment plan to pay back rent and bring the account current. The judge may offer the eviction case to mediation at the outset of the calendar call.

We had to share the bad news that if your only defense is that you did not pay your rent due to financial difficulty, it will not prevent your eviction.

Many of the tenants we've interviewed had other housing issues such as failure to repair, infestations, and mold. These conditions are noted in the tenant's answer to the court. We reiterated the importance of answering a dispossessary or eviction complaint from the court as soon as possible. You would be surprised how many people do not submit an answer to an eviction action against them and lose their case by default.

Overall, my experience serving at the housing court assistance center was enriching. We assisted fifteen people during a short time with rental assistance information and free legal advice. I can see myself working as a pro-bono attorney in the future after graduating from law school and passing the bar exam. I am happy that the housing court assistance program exists. I am honored to have served with them. I cannot imagine the alternative if people did not have access to free legal advice. I must note that several clients greeted me by saying, "As-salaam Alaykum," which made me feel they were trying to connect with me with mutual kindness.


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