Arizona, Utah Okay Nonlawyer Program for Housing Advice

Source: Law360 Pulse
Author: Tracey Read Date: May 30, 2023

A new legal service model that aims to keep more low-income families in their homes has received approval from the Arizona and Utah Supreme Courts — which have waived restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law.

The Innovation for Justice program, also known as I4J, announced a new Housing Stability Legal Advocate (HSLA) initiative on May 30 to train and empower licensed advocates who are employed by or volunteer at community-based organizations to provide limited-scope legal advice and services to tenants who are facing eviction. In most states, only lawyers can provide these types of legal services, due to restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law.

Cayley Balser, the program’s community-engaged research operations lead, who co-led the housing initiative, said the new service model was the first of its type nationally.

“Building the bench of legal service providers beyond only lawyers and law students to include staff at community-based organizations increases the resources available for community members,” Balser told Law360 Pulse in an email recently. “This initiative has the potential to change the delivery of legal services nationwide because it is the first time that a service model is being implemented in two state court jurisdictions simultaneously. This will allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of this service model in these states which have different housing stability landscapes, including different civil justice system interaction points and timelines.

“As the success of this Initiative is evaluated, this will provide important and critical information to expand to larger cohorts, scale in other states, and adapt to various service needs in different jurisdictions.”

The initiative will provide a free, specialized training course to experienced staffers at community-based organizations. After passing the course, advocates will be able to give pro bono, trauma-informed, limited-scope legal advice about housing-related legal issues along with the social services they already provide.

“The goal of the HSLA initiative is to prevent housing problems from becoming legal problems by creating opportunities for low-income renters to receive legal help from the experienced community-based advocates that they trust,” Innovation for Justice Director Stacy Butler said in a statement.

Butler said 92% of low-income Americans’ civil legal needs go unmet, so the families who will benefit from the initiative would otherwise not receive legal assistance.

“This is a community-engaged effort. I4J has worked with individuals and organizations in Arizona and Utah to understand the unmet need and build a new service model that meets tenants where they are,” she said.

The initiative was the result of a yearlong project that explored how to use regulatory reform to help underrepresented communities undergoing housing instability. Most of the people in those communities are renters.

According to Innovation for Justice, of the 44.1 million renter households in the U.S., 11 million have extremely low incomes — at or below either the federal poverty guideline or 30% of the area’s median income, whichever is higher.

For every 100 extremely low-income renter households in Arizona and Utah, there are approximately 30 affordable rental housing units available. In addition, more than 70% of such renters are paying more than half of their income on rent.

“Keeping people in their homes results in better outcomes for the tenants and their families, and avoiding evictions also saves communities the downstream costs of eviction-related social services,” Butler said.

The Arizona Supreme Court issued an administrative order in January 2023, and the Utah Supreme Court published a standing order in March of this year to allow the initiative to proceed. It will initially involve a cohort of 20 people in each state.

Jon Ehlinger, president of the Garcia Family Foundation, which is helping with funding in Arizona, said he was grateful to the justice program and the courts for their innovative approach to a pressing issue.

“We are particularly excited about the level of community outreach and engagement they used in developing this approach and the urgency with which the work will move forward,” Ehlinger said in a statement.

Arizona is already recruiting participants, while Utah recruitment will begin after the project secures funding for a launch, officials said.

The initiative is Innovation for Justice’s third project advancing access to justice for low-income communities through reform of restrictions against the unauthorized practice of law.

Other efforts were the Licensed Legal Advocate Initiative, an Arizona pilot program that allowed advocates who go through training to give legal advice to domestic violence survivors, and the Medical Debt Legal Advocate Initiative in Utah, which allowed nonlawyer professionals to offer legal support to citizens on financial matters relating to their medical care.

The Innovation for Justice program is housed at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law and the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business.