When Nina DePalma RLAW’20 spent the summer after her first year of law school working in the housing unit of Northeast New Jersey Legal Services in Jersey City, she said she saw several people evicted from their homes—including elderly people evicted for crimes others in their households had committed, and single mothers who were struggling to make ends meet.
DePalma said she was struck that the tenants did not have legal representation and were unaware that New Jersey law provides recourse for tenants facing eviction. “For every tenant that came to our office and received our help, I imagined the amount of families who would be unable to obtain legal help and subsequently lose their homes,” she said. Though New Jersey has more tenant-friendly laws than most states, she found that tenants are unaware of these laws and unable to leverage them in their eviction cases.
So DePalma decided to do something about it.
When she returned to law school in the fall of her second year she enlisted the help of Rutgers Law and Seton Hall law students, to form the Newark Housing Rights Coalition, a nonprofit coalition to help Newark residents facing eviction in partnership with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and McCarter & English.
DePalma said she learned that 78 percent of Newark’s residents are renters and the city has 40,000 eviction cases filed in the county’s landlord-tenant court every year. “It’s a really good thing for law students to be involved in,” she said. “I saw this gap. There are two law schools here and a lot of law students are yearning to be involved with clients. I thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing more’ and wanted to alleviate the unmet need I was seeing.”
Though Rutgers Law School offers landlord/tenant assistance through its Civil Justice Clinic, that clinic is only open to law students in their final year of law school. Professor Norrinda Hayat, who directs the clinic, said the coalition will offer students experience in housing law before they are eligible for the clinic, “They can get involved much earlier and there is such a great need.”
DePalma’s coalition got off the ground this fall. She said because eviction cases are quick-paced—typically court dates are within two weeks of filing for eviction—the time table is ideal for law students who are working on cases during a school semester period. The students are supervised by Allison Nolan and other lawyers at Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, who work closely with McCarter & English as a critical partner.
Abdul Rehman Khan RLAW’17 works at McCarter & English as the Pro Bono Fellow for the City of Newark. He represents tenants facing eviction. “The firm was approached by a group of driven students from Rutgers Law who were passionate about housing justice. Their commitment and vision made it a no-brainer for us to work with them and support their cause, which aims at exploring areas like eviction, homelessness, and community legal education,” he said. “Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, which our firm has collaborated and partnered with for many years, was enthusiastic about supporting and hosting the law students.”
The coalition, which includes Rutgers Law students DePalma RLAW‘20, Connor Mannion RLAW‘20, Margaret Fiori RLAW‘21, Amal Mimish RLAW’21 and Griselda Hodaj RLAW‘22; and Seton Hall law students Gerard Green ‘21, Lauren McNamara ‘21 and Aleksandra Syniec ‘21, will do more than represent tenants. They will also explore options to increase affordable housing in Newark and to provide community organizations with legal tools that will help low and moderate-income residents avoid eviction. The coalition’s services are sorely needed, Khan said.
“Ninety-five percent of tenants arriving in Landlord-Tenant Court in Newark are unrepresented, while 95% of landlords are represented,” he said. “Many of my clients, especially ones who rely upon government assistance, face the horrible threat of homelessness; in fact, some studies show that close to 50% of individuals who are homeless cite eviction as the reason for their homelessness.”
DePalma, who will graduate in May, hopes the coalition will continue to help Newark’s tenants after she’s done with law school. “The project will not only provide direct representation services, but also preparation for self-presentation, policy research and reform, and community legal education,” she said. “I’m hopeful and optimistic that this program will continue to grow and help tenants all over the city to protect and assert their rights.”