Poverty and Housing Law Clinic

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond concludes that evictions are not a symptom of poverty. They are a direct cause.

In the Poverty and Housing Law Clinic, you will learn how to defend low-income tenants (many of whom have disabilities or young children, or are victims of domestic violence) against unwarranted evictions. Many of these tenants live within just a few miles of The Law School.

You will attend weekly lectures about subsidized housing programs, eviction actions, trial practice, housing discrimination, the intersection between domestic violence and housing, and the extensive and often misunderstood connection between criminal law and subsidized housing.

Most important, you will work twelve hours a week in the Housing Practice Group at Legal Aid Chicago, the Midwest’s largest provider of free civil legal services to the poor.

Every year more than 30,000 people call Legal Aid Chicago seeking our assistance. And every year the Housing Practice Group represents hundreds of tenants facing eviction from the only housing they can afford. We also help clients preserve their tenant-based rental assistance, gain admission to subsidized housing developments, force landlords to make necessary repairs, and challenge illegal discrimination.

Clinical Teachers

Dennericka Brooks
Director, Housing Practice Group
Legal Aid Chicago

Project Goals

This clinic, conducted over two sequential quarters, exposes students to the practice of poverty law work by giving them the opportunity to work on housing cases at Legal Aid Chicago, which provides free legal services to indigent clients in civil matters. Students will spend twelve hours per week in Legal Aid Chicago’s Housing Practice Group, and may be be asked to attend administrative grievance hearings, represent defendants in eviction actions, prevent landlords from performing lockouts or refusing to make necessary repairs, and participate in ongoing federal litigation. All students will be expected to interview clients, prepare written discovery, and draft motions. In addition to working at Legal Aid Chicago, students will attend a weekly two-hour class at which they will learn about poverty law, subsidized housing programs, eviction actions, housing discrimination, the intersection between domestic violence and housing, using the bankruptcy code to preserve subsidized tenancies, challenging barred lists and "no trespass" policies, jury trial practice, and the extensive and often misunderstood connection between criminal law and subsidized housing. Enrollment is limited to twelve students. The seminar is taught by Lawrence Wood (Supervising Attorney, Legal Aid Chicago). Each student's grade is based on his or her class participation (20%), one paper-l0 pages minimum (10%), and work at Legal Aid Chicago (70%).

Is the Clinic right for you?

The late Justice Antonin Scalia would say, “No.”

In a 2008 speech to the Chicago chapter of the Federalist Society, he stated that The University of Chicago “ha[d] lost the niche it once had as a rigorous and conservative law school,” in part because it offered courses on “Law and Poverty,” which he derided as “made-up stuff” and a waste of time.

When Justice Scalia made these remarks, thirty-seven million Americans—more than 12% of the population—lived in poverty. Their numbers have only grown.

The poor face homelessness, physical abuse, the loss of benefits they need to survive—any number of serious or even devastating problems—and they cannot afford private attorneys.  They desperately need legal representation, and providing this representation is absorbing and satisfying work.

That’s what Legal Aid Chicago attorneys do. We help low-income individuals avoid unwarranted evictions, escape abusive relationships, retain custody of their children, obtain desperately needed benefits and services, challenge policies that discriminate against the poor, contest deportations, and fight employment discrimination. 

We do not take a case unless the client has a meritorious claim or defense, so unless we misjudge a client’s credibility during the interview process, we are always on the right side. That is a luxury few attorneys enjoy. 

The work is exhausting because there is so much of it and because so much is at stake in every case, but the job is never boring. Even our most experienced attorneys are regularly presented with new legal problems that demand novel solutions.

Legal Aid Chicago receives funding from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), and is therefore subject to federal regulation. Since 1996, Congress has prohibited us from filing class actions, representing undocumented immigrants—unless they are victims of violence—and legislative lobbying. Last year LSC allowed us to create a small subsidiary, Legal Action Chicago, that can engage in LSC-prohibited activities, but most Legal Aid Chicago attorneys are still bound by the restrictions. No one likes these restrictions, but we understand the importance of ensuring that every person, regardless of his or her financial situation, has meaningful access to the legal system, and we have learned to work within the restrictions to achieve this goal.

We also understand there are limits to what we can accomplish. If someone is financially eligible for our services, that is their main problem. In most cases we will not be able to resolve that issue. We cannot eradicate poverty through our work at Legal Aid Chicago, but we can give people who live in poverty the legal assistance they need and deserve. 

If you want to help provide such assistance, sign up for the clinic. By the time it’s over, you will have learned that poverty law is far from “made-up stuff,” and you’ll know whether it’s something you want to pursue as a career or through pro bono opportunities.

Legal Aid Chicago prevents eviction of domestic violence survivor.

K lived in subsidized housing, and one night she suffered a severe beating at the hands of her boyfriend. Her landlord added insult to injury by holding her responsible for the beating and issuing written notice of its intent to terminate her tenancy. 

The notice read, “Your guest was taken from your apartment by the Chicago Police Department in response to your phone request for someone to alert the police because you needed help. The police officer and management came to your unit, and when you answered the door it was obvious that you had been beaten. Your face was swollen, especially your nose, and scratches as well as bite marks appeared to be present. Allowing this individual in your unit is a violation of [the lease provision that prohibits your guests from engaging in criminal activity].”

K petitioned for an order of protection against her boyfriend and told the presiding judge about her housing problem. This judge had spent the first fourteen years of his legal career at Legal aid Chicago, so he referred K to our agency. 

We defended K by arguing that the applicable lease provision could not be used to punish a crime victim for the fact that a crime was committed. We also filed a counterclaim asserting that a policy of evicting domestic violence victims for incidents of domestic violence has a disparate impact on women, and therefore violates the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination. (The Violence Against Women Act was subsequently amended to make such claims unnecessary in subsidized housing cases.)

After requesting three extensions to respond to our counterclaim, the landlord agreed to dismiss its case.

Legal Aid Chicago secures victory for arson victim.

B’s daughter had an abusive boyfriend. After he threatened to kill B’s daughter, the police brought the daughter and her two young children to B’s public housing unit in Chicago Heights. A couple days later the boyfriend showed up there.  B refused to let him in and called the police, but he returned later that day with a can of gasoline, which he used to burn down the apartment. (He’s now serving a 26-year prison sentence for this crime.)

B, who was severely burned while trying to protect her daughter and 5-month-old granddaughter, spent the next three months in the hospital recovering from her injuries. When she got out, the Housing Authority of Cook County (HACC) refused to provide her with another unit, telling her that she bore responsibility for the fire because the arsonist came to the unit looking for her daughter, and that B should move into assisted living. HACC tried to justify its refusal to rehouse B by noting that she still owed $186 on a repayment agreement.

Together with the Shriver Center, Legal Aid Chicago filed a seventeen-count complaint against HACC in federal court. This lawsuit was the subject of a Chicago Tribune article—Lawsuit says housing authority punishing crime victim—that the reporter began with these words: “Don’t spend my tax money defending this lawsuit.”

After HACC agreed to rehouse B, the parties attempted to resolve the remaining issues by appearing for a settlement conference before U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox, who at one point said to HACC, “Do you really want this to be the case that [Legal Aid Chicago] talks about at its annual luncheon?”

HACC agreed to resolve the case by paying B a confidential sum and training its property managers on the Fair Housing Act and the Violence Against Women Act (two of the more important laws that HACC violated by refusing to rehouse B).

University of Chicago law students win nearly impossible case.

When C first came to Legal aid Chicago, her case seemed hopeless. She was 37-years-old and raising six minor children on her own, and the Chicago Housing Authority had just terminated her assistance under the Housing Choice Voucher Program (a tenant-based rental assistance program) on the grounds that she had pled guilty to felony possession of illegal drugs on two separate occasions.

The first time (when she participated in a drug deal only because she feared retaliation from her imprisoned boyfriend's fellow gang members if she refused) she was sentenced to probation.

The second time (when drugs that a different ex-boyfriend left in her car were discovered when she was pulled over for a traffic violation) she was sentenced to eighteen months in prison because she was still on probation.

Although C had a procedural defense that could get her case remanded back to CHA for a new administrative hearing, it didn't seem like she could possibly win this hearing.  Fortunately, one of Legal Aid Chicago’s housing attorneys determined during the initial interview that C was a victim of domestic violence, and that her criminal activity was directly related to the abuse she endured at the hands of two ex-boyfriends.

Convincing CHA of this fact would be extremely difficult, but Neha Lall (who taught a class on gender-based violence here at The Law School) took the case and enlisted the aid of two of her students: Rachel Bell and Melissa Gworek. They raced to court and got the case remanded to CHA for a new hearing, and that’s when the really hard work began.

Melissa spent hours preparing C for the hearing and gathering all the documentation (twenty exhibits including criminal records, an order of protection, and letters from social workers) that would support our contention that C never would have committed the crimes for which she was arrested but for the fact that she was a domestic violence victim.

At the hearing, Melissa conducted the direct examination of C and for more than an hour helped her present the long and complicated history of her relationship with two extremely abusive men.   

The hearing officer issued a 15-page decision reinstating C’s assistance. In this decision, the hearing officer stated that C established both (1) her status as a victim of domestic violence, and (2) the connection between the abuse she suffered and her criminal activity.

Subsidized housing resident improves flawed system by taking case to appellate court.

Nicole King, a single mother of two young children, was facing eviction from subsidized housing for nonpayment of less than two hundred dollars in rent that she did not even owe.

She went to court without a lawyer, met in the hallway with the landlord's attorney, and, desperate to preserve her subsidized housing, signed what she thought was a "pay and stay" agreement that would allow her to preserve her tenancy by paying the disputed amount of rent plus court costs. Only after trying to pay this amount did she learn that she had actually signed a "pay and move" order. That's when she came to Legal Aid Chicago, and we filed a motion to vacate the purportedly agreed order.

The trial judge accepted Ms. King’s assertion that she did not understand the order’s material terms, but he did not find that fact relevant. The vast majority of eviction actions, he noted, are resolved through the entry of an agreed order, and in 90% of those cases the landlord is represented by counsel, the tenant is pro se, and the tenant does not understand the order’s material terms. And, he declared, “I enforce those orders.”

The judge then stated that he would have departed from his normal practice and granted Ms. King’s motion to vacate but for the fact that the property manager had, over Legal Aid Chicago’s objections, testified that Ms. King played loud music at night. This allegation was not set forth in the termination notice, but the judge allowed the property manager to testify about it because, according to the judge, eviction actions are small claims cases and the rules of evidence do not apply.

Legal Aid Chicago appealed and won a reversal in a published opinion. Draper & Kramer v. King, 2014 IL App (1st) 132073 (settlement agreements are binding only if there is a meeting of the minds, and the rules of evidence apply in eviction actions).

Legal Aid Chicago saves subsidized tenancy for mother who lost son.

N worked as a secretary and lived in public housing with her five children. When her oldest son, who was eighteen, was shot and killed in front of her scattered-site unit, she fell apart.  She stopped working, ignored her bills, and spent her days in bed.

One night she tried to commit suicide and ended up in a hospital, where she came under the care of a psychiatrist who diagnosed her as suffering from PTSD, depression, and generalized anxiety.

Three months after her son’s death, N received from CHA a termination notice demanding the $300 in rent that had accrued. (Had she told CHA about her loss of income when she stopped working, her rent would have been adjusted to $0, but she had not communicated with the agency.)

N ignored this notice, and after it expired CHA filed an eviction action against her. When she received the summons to appear in court, she came to Legal Aid Chicago.

Because her lease violation was directly related to her handicap—she was facing eviction for failing to pay rent that accrued while she was suffering from a debilitating depression triggered by her son’s death—we argued that she was entitled under the Fair Housing Act to a reasonable accommodation that would allow her to preserve her subsidized tenancy.

We asked CHA to dismiss its eviction action and give N a second chance to pay the rent due. CHA denied our request, so the case proceeded to trial.  After three days of testimony, it took the jury less than an hour to render a verdict in N’s favor.

Legal Aid Chicago brings affordable housing to opportunity area.

After promising to rehabilitate the Cabrini Rowhouses, a collection of 568 public housing units on Chicago’s Near North Side, CHA displaced the residents by temporarily relocating some and issuing temporary vouchers to others. Almost all the families found themselves in racially segregated and economically depressed neighborhoods with limited opportunities. 

After rehabilitating just one quarter of the units, CHA announced that it would convert the Rowhouses into a mixed-income development where only 30% of the units would be reserved for public housing residents. This plan eliminated several hundred units of low-income housing in an opportunity area where residents have access to good schools, public transportation, and jobs.

Together with Sidley Austin, we filed on behalf of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council a federal lawsuit alleging that CHA’s plan violated its statutory duty to affirmatively further fair housing.

After more than two years of litigation, we negotiated a consent decree that requires CHA to develop 1,800 units of subsidized housing for low-income families on Chicago’s Near North Side.