Clinics Collaborate for Eviction Prevention

This semester, the Fair Housing, Public Health Law, Medical-Legal Partnership, and Mediation Clinics, along with the Law and Social Work Service Program, have combined forces to prevent evictions in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Led by the Deputy Director of the Network for Public Health Law (Eastern Region), Kerri Lowrey, the collaboration seeks to address the significant housing crisis that has worsened in the wake of the pandemic and to disrupt the negative public health outcomes that flow from it by addressing all of the factors that contribute to housing instability.

The collaboration arose from a partnership with Prince George’s County Community Schools that sought to address the problem of school transience that afflicts many low-income neighborhoods. As a public health attorney, Lowrey has long viewed education as an important social determinant of health. When students start in one school and end at another, there are implications not only for the students’ education but also for health outcomes, including students’ ability to form attachments with peers. Last year, Lowrey was presenting to school health officials in Maryland and, as she often does, provided her favorite example of how the law can be used as a tool to advance public health aims: an Atlanta program called Standing with our Neighbors was able to reduce school transience by 43% in at-risk areas by hiring an attorney to help families with housing issues. Lowrey joked that if anyone in the audience wanted to fund this project in Maryland, she would love to hear from them. That was all that the former director of the Prince George’s County Community Schools, Dr. Adrian Talley, needed to hear. By the time she left, Lowrey was mulling over how to break the news to her boss that she wanted to take on yet another project and borrow her clinic students for it. Fortunately, Lowrey’s boss, Prof. Kathi Hoke, was nothing but supportive.

There was good reason for the Dr. Talley’s interest in reducing school transience. Prince George’s County has one of the highest school transience rates in the state, and the problem had been steadily increasing for years. Some rents were increasing by as much as ten percent a year, and families were being forced to move in together in small spaces. Of the students at highest risk of transience, many are either undocumented or living with family members who are undocumented, which complicates efforts to help.

Lowrey quickly got to work setting up the project based on a collaborative model: community school coordinators would identify clients, who would then come to an Eviction Prevention Project clinic to receive advice. The Pro Bono Resource Center trained Lowrey, Prof. Hoke, and Public Health Law Clinic students on rent court cases. They began holding clinics on Tuesdays and Thursdays at CASA de Maryland in Hyattsville, which has an established reputation of trust within the immigrant community.

Once the project started, it was clear to Lowrey that it should be expanded beyond Prince George’s County to include Baltimore City, where the housing crisis looms large. She also recognized the limitations of advice-only legal clinics. Although that model enables students to help more clients, what the clients really needed—and couldn’t get from other legal services providers—was representation in court (a recent study in Baltimore City District Court found that 99 percent of tenants did not have legal counsel, while only four percent of landlords represented themselves in court.) She knew she would need to bring in some reinforcements to make this happen.

And then the COVID-19 crisis hit. The project had just gotten off the ground when everything shut down, and it could not have come at a worse time. The pandemic was causing the housing crisis to explode, and Lowrey knew that once the state and federal eviction moratoria lifted, things were going to get a whole lot worse.

Yet greater need brought greater opportunity to help, as the pandemic provided additional funding opportunities to expand the scope of the project. Lowrey partnered with the Fair Housing, Medical-Legal Partnership, and Mediation Clinics, along with the Law and Social Work Program and field placement offices at the School of Social Work, to obtain a seed grant from the University of Maryland Baltimore Center for Interprofessional Education to specifically address acute housing needs in the wake of COVID-19. Now the Public Health Law, Fair Housing, and Medical-Legal Partnership clinics are poised to provide direct representation in court and participate in the policymaking process; the Mediation Clinic oversees partnership development with community mediation centers and training in alternative dispute resolution; and the Law and Social Work Service Program and social work field offices provide access to needed social services and supports to improve short-and long-term outcomes for families most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The partnership with Prince George’s County Community Schools continues, with interprofessional teams of law and social work students meeting with parents via Zoom every Thursday afternoon to provide legal and social assistance. Partners at the School of Social Work have led a widespread outreach effort in Baltimore City, which has generated many client referrals from the city. Several clinics are co-teaching courses in interprofessional collaboration, and the Public Health Law and Fair Housing clinics are leading policy efforts, including drafting policy briefs on rent stabilization, eviction expungement, right to counsel, and a possible renewal of the statewide eviction moratorium.

For Lowrey, the journey from idea to implementation to expansion has been a whirlwind, but she is grateful to work for an institution that values dynamic leadership, among colleagues always willing to step up to make a difference. “I’m not a housing attorney, and I’ve spent my career doing policy research, so it’s been a little scary being outside of my comfort zone. But I feel so incredibly fortunate to work for a supervisor that told me to go make it happen and to work in the Clinical Law Program, where I’m surrounded by amazing faculty and students who are eager to help meet real needs.”

About Maryland Carey Law

The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law was established in 1816 and began regular instruction in 1824. It is the third-oldest law school in the nation, but its innovative programs make it one of the liveliest and most dynamic today. Maryland Carey Law stands among five other professional schools on the Founding Campus of the University of Maryland. It has taken advantage of this location to become an integral part of the Baltimore-Washington legal and business community.