The University of South Carolina School of Law was one of 99 law schools that answered Attorney General Merrick Garland’s call to action to address the housing and eviction crisis last fall. On January 28, the attorney general gave thanks and recognition to those schools in a virtual ceremony that also included Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, among others.
“Five months ago, I asked the legal community to answer the call to help Americans facing eviction. Law students and lawyers from across the country stepped up to take on cases and assisted their clients and communities at a time when our country needed it the most,” said Garland. “Today, our work is far from over, and making real the promise of equal justice under law remains our urgent and unfinished mission.”
The call to action by the attorney general and the response from the law schools are part of a much broader initiative to help millions of families keep up on rent and remain in their homes. Thanks in part to these efforts, hundreds of thousands of families across the country have remained in their homes, keeping eviction filing rates below 60% of averages in a typical year, according to the Department of Justice.
South Carolina Law was quick to respond, with students, staff, and faculty all lending their support to help struggling families in the Palmetto State avoid eviction through rental assistance application support, volunteering with legal aid providers, and assisting courts to implement eviction diversion programs, among other initiatives aimed at increasing housing stability and access to justice.
Pam Robinson, the director of the Pro Bono Program, pulled together a team of volunteers and worked with several community partners to support tenants with their rental or utility needs. Last September, they traveled to Barnwell, South Carolina, where they assisted clients with applications to the SC Stay Plus program. In all, almost 70 clients were helped through these efforts. The Pro Bono Program also created brochures that were available to clients at all outreach events to ensure that those in need had accurate, reliable information.
But the reach goes much further, thanks to existing programs already in place. Since its inception, students have volunteered with the Columbia Chapter of the NAACP Housing Navigators Program. They work with as many as three clients a month, walking them through their options in securing housing, rental assistance, or handling eviction matters. If a client is represented by an attorney through the Eviction Diversion Program, the student follows that case to completion.
In the Summer of 2021, the law school’s NMRS Center on Professionalism supported two full-time fellows to work for the NAACP Navigators program. Fellows provided critical assistance to the NAACP in developing, implementing, and expanding its pilot navigator program to combat housing instability in Columbia.
Thanks in part to those relationships, Glynnis Hagins, who graduates in May, was awarded a prestigious Skadden Fellowship to work with the NAACP Housing Navigators Program in South Carolina. Hagins will be assisting South Carolinians who face eviction and discriminatory housing practices through litigation, developing a know-your-rights information manual, and creating an on-site housing clinic in partnership with a local school district.
Additionally, the Carolina Health Advocacy Medicolegal PartnerShip (CHAMPS) has seen a dramatic increase in the number of clients who are facing loss of housing or eviction during the pandemic. CHAMPS addresses the social determinants of clients’ health, including their housing conditions. The program provides legal representation where possible to help clients maintain their housing, while students earning their master’s in social work help clients who have already been evicted find emergency and stable housing.
Students in the law school’s externship program have multiple opportunities to work with organizations that deal specifically with housing issues, including with South Carolina Magistrate offices (handling eviction cases), SC Master-in-Equity offices (handling foreclosures), and the SC Human Affairs Commission (addressing housing discrimination cases).
School of Law professor Etienne Toussaint launched a cross-disciplinary research project with his spouse, Ebony Toussaint, a post-doctoral fellow with the Rural and Minority Health Research Center at the university’s Arnold School of Public Health. The ongoing project explores the psychological and physiological trauma experienced by individuals who have been evicted and creates a map of where those evictions occur, layered with the proximity of access to mental healthcare services. Coupled with an examination of eviction laws at the federal, state, and local levels, the study will analyze whether progressive eviction laws at the local level impact the experience of adverse mental health and other health outcomes. Ultimately, the interdisciplinary project will advocate for law reforms that can mitigate the negative health effects of housing eviction.
South Carolina Law’s Housing and Eviction Crisis Working Group will continue to look for additional ways faculty, staff, and students can make valuable contributions to communities in the state and provide relief for those in need. These medium- and long-term projects include creating clinical and capstone courses, as well as other experiential learning opportunities that benefit both students and the public.