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Maryland Access to Justice Commission Outstanding Program of the Year Award

May 13, 2011

2011 Honoree: Tenants in Foreclosure Project of the Public Justice Center

A new project created by the Public Justice Center (PJC) in late 2009 is expanding access to justice for a previously powerless and underrepresented group of individuals – tenants who are evicted because their landlord is in foreclosure. The Public Justice Center’s Tenants in Foreclosure (TIF) initiative brought this constituency to the attention of the general public and the General Assembly, and is now leading the state in providing legal advice and representation to tenants in foreclosure. The Public Justice Center is also educating tenants, other legal services providers, the bar and the bench about new tenant rights, and advocating for new protections before the General Assembly and the Rules Committee of the Court of Appeals.

National studies show that 40% of families losing their homes due to a foreclosure are not homeowners, but tenants. Foreclosure filing in Maryland have increased form only 3,094 in 2006 to 43,248 in 2009, a 1,397% increase in just three years, and another 59.9% increase in 2010. The hardest hit areas for tenants in foreclosures in Maryland are the largely low-income, African-American, urban jurisdictions of Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.

PJC began seeing an explosion of tenants being evicted through Circuit Court foreclosure actions in 2008, at the onset of the current economic downturn. PJC launched a multi-pronged, multi-year strategy to address the issue through legal representation and litigation, education and policy advocacy. They formed a work group with other legal advocates and the Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition to gather data on the scope of the problem, write and publish a tenant information brochure in English and Spanish, and review Maryland law to identify policy initiatives. As a result of this work, PJC led efforts to change Maryland law to require key notification requirements for tenants, and to the passage of new rules that implement federal protections for tenants.

In September 2009, PJC hired attorneys and paralegals and began providing representation to tenants affected by foreclosure. Since that time, PJC has provided legal services to 364 tenants in foreclosure, helping them successfully negotiate cash settlements, or secure the right to remain in their homes.

In the fall of 2010, PJC began offering monthly evening workshops for tenants in foreclosure. They also launched the “Take Back Your Home” Campaign with other advocates in Prince George’s County. The objective is to identify and canvass homeowners and tenants who are in foreclosure, and get them to workshops at which they receive legal advice and assistance from housing counselors and attorneys. Each week, PJC provides Howard University Law School and American University Law School students with a Google Map and spreadsheet that identifies properties where the foreclosure process has started. The students cluster groups of homes to canvass each week, and teams of at least two students go to targeted homes, talk with the homeowner or tenant to educate them about the foreclosure process, and encourage attendance at upcoming workshops. At the workshops, PJC assists tenants by providing individualized legal advice; housing counselors and attorneys assist homeowners in requesting mortgage modifications and mediation where appropriate. This timely, comprehensive and well-executed project provides a notable example of how innovative legal services providers can leverage their impact to enhance access to justice.

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