Pro Bono Spring Break Gives Students a New View on Poverty and Poverty Law

Monday, April 4, 2016

UPDATE | By Harry M. Reasoner

Foreclosures and evictions are not what you typically think of when you think of Spring Break, but rather than lounging on the beach, several Texas law students spent their spring break assisting low-income Texans with housing issues. As participants in the Commission’s fourth annual Pro Bono Spring Break, the students were a part of a group gaining valuable hands-on experience working in legal aid offices on issues as diverse as domestic violence, employment, public benefits, housing, and more. At the same time, the students gained a deeper understanding of the challenges confronted by low-income Texans and the critical role legal aid and pro bono attorneys play in ensuring they have access to justice. This year, fifteen legal aid organizations with 44 offices around the state hosted over 80 Pro Bono Spring Break students.

Some of the housing problems the students were exposed to during Pro Bono Spring Break include foreclosures, evictions, property tax issues, problems with Homeowner Associations, informal and often predatory purchase agreements such as contracts for deed, issues arising in mobile home communities, and unsafe and unsanitary living conditions. For many of the students, one of the most poignant lessons was how problems often snowball for the poor. Housing is one area where the domino effect is especially pronounced, and assistance from an attorney or high quality self-help resources can prevent a problem from growing into a crisis.

A case that illustrates the domino effect that the students learned about involves a woman living in a small home with her two children. Her property taxes steadily increased over the years and she has not been able to pay them. As she recently learned, she cannot sell the home because she does not have clear title. Her grandparents purchased the home on an informal installment plan and the title was never properly transferred. It was informally passed down within the family and they cannot track down the seller. Now the County is foreclosing. She moves to a motel with her children because she does not have the money to put down a deposit and the first and last months rent required to get an apartment. The second week in the motel, her car breaks down and she discovers there is no bus service nearby, making it difficult to get to work on time. She cannot afford to fix the car, so she loses her job when she is late to work one day. One of her children has become sick because the smoke that wafts through the motel vents aggravates her asthma. She knows she will not be able to pay for the motel much longer. The next time she takes the kids to the library, she googles “homeless shelter.”

There is a good chance that a legal aid or pro bono attorney would be able to help this woman sort out the problems with her title. They may also be able to help her identify exemptions or reduce the County’s assessed value on her home to make it more affordable. In fact, if an attorney or self-help resources were available to her grandparents, they could have avoided entering into an informal purchase agreement and ensured that they got title to their home in the first place.

An attorney or self-help resources could help determine if she qualifies for any public benefits that would help her make ends meet. Finally, an attorney or access to high quality self-help resources could help her seek a reasonable accommodation at the motel so she can get a room that does not share a vent with smoking rooms.

Through Pro Bono Spring Break, the law students were able to see just how close to the edge so many Texans are. They also experienced the incomparable thrill of using their knowledge and training to help people who really need it. It is our hope that armed with this knowledge these law students will become passionate allies as we continue working to provide access to justice for all Texans.

Harry M. Reasoner is the chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and a partner at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, Texas. His principal area of practice is complex civil litigation, including antitrust and securities litigation. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, the International Society of Barristers, and the American Bar Foundation.

UPDATE | By Harry M. Reasoner