The Civil Litigation Clinic has been renamed the Tenant Advocacy Clinic, but the work of the Clinic has not changed much. Continuing its partnerships with local legal aid organizations such as Legal Aid Chicago, Law Center for Better Housing, and Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, the Clinic provides direct representation to tenants who cannot afford attorneys. The students assume primary responsibility for their cases under the supervision of Laurie Mikva and Joseph Becker, both of whom have extensive experience litigating on behalf of indigent tenants. Most of the cases involve eviction defense, but the Clinic takes other types of tenant cases as well.
Katie Boraz and Anthony Walner, NU 2023, are representing KA to help her correct extremely poor conditions in her apartment including leaky pipes, mold, rodents, and doors that do not lock. The client reached out for legal assistance when, despite many attempts, she was unable to get her landlord to fix the problems. Katie and Tony went to visit the client’s home on the far southwest side of Chicago to speak with the client, and to observe and take photographs of the conditions. The students have prepared a complaint for injunctive relief and damages against the landlord and the management company that they plan to file in Cook County Chancery Court.
Katie described her field trip as a “privilege,” stating that she appreciated the ability to witness doors that didn’t lock in an unsafe neighborhood, and mold that endangered the health of KA and her father. She explained, “As someone who has not had much of an opportunity to leave Streeterville since arriving at Northwestern, the literal hands-on approach of the Bluhm Legal Clinic allows us to better understand the actual conditions out clients suffer and arm us with evidence and passion to negotiate for a better home for our client.”
Katherine Plaster and Zoe Levine, NU 2023, just finished representing KB in an eviction case. They were able to obtain a positive settlement agreement that allowed the client to stay in her apartment at a reduced rent through April 2023 and ensured that the client would not have an eviction order on her record. However, the case hit a stumbling block over the issue of sealing the eviction file.
Although Illinois enacted a law earlier in the pandemic that would have made it easy to seal KB’s eviction file, the law was allowed to sunset this past summer. The attorney for the landlord agreed not to object to sealing the file as part of the settlement but, in fact, he objected to the court making the finding necessary to seal the file. Thus, the court declined to seal the file when the case was dismissed pursuant to the settlement agreement.
Worried that the eviction case would harm the client’s ability to secure rental housing in the future even though the case had been dismissed, Kathryn and Zoe decided to pursue the matter further. The students researched the issue and crafted an argument that the case satisfied the stringent standard for sealing contained in the pre-pandemic statute. They wrote a Motion to Dismiss and had it scheduled for a hearing in Zoom court. Zoe’s first-ever court appearance was a lively argument on the motion with a seasoned attorney. Happily, for the client, Zoe prevailed, and the Court granted the motion to seal the file.
Zoe said of her courtroom experience, “Although it was intimidating to argue a motion with such high stakes in court for the first time, I am very happy that the Judge agreed with our argument, and it was a great experience for a future litigator.”
Kathryn came away from the case with concern about justice for tenants. She stated, “While it was satisfying to win our motion to seal, having to argue the motion highlighted the injustices of our system. It is disappointing that many pandemic-related advancements in tenants’ rights, such as the ability to seal eviction records by agreement, have been rolled back by the Illinois legislature.”
Thus, just as they did in the Civil Litigation Clinic, the students in the Tenant Advocacy Clinic help Chicago-area tenants as they learn to litigate and increase their awareness of the housing struggles faced by low-income residents.