Vanderbilt was one of 99 law schools that responded to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s call to action to work in their local communities to address the housing and eviction crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Nashville, students in the Housing Law Clinic directed by Associate Clinical Professor Jennifer Prusak worked with tenants facing eviction proceedings and through a coalition of community partners to advocate for tenants’ rights.
“Lawyers may be the only thing standing in the way of eviction for millions of renters,” Prusak wrote in a Sept. 27, 2021, column published by The Conversation a month after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium ended on Aug. 26. “Data shows that once an eviction court begins a case, it’s very likely the tenant will be out on the street—unless they have legal representation.”
Prusak launched Vanderbilt’s first clinic devoted to housing law in spring 2021. She and her students joined faculty and students from law schools in 35 states and Puerto Rico in advocating for tenants facing eviction from public housing and private rentals. The clinic also partners with a newly established diversionary housing court developed specifically to assist tenants and landlords in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, which was founded and presided over by Judge Rachel L. Bell.
Legal representation is essential, according to Prusak, because “Eviction court favors landlords, even in situations where the law is on the renter’s side.”
“All states have statutes that allow landlords to evict tenants quickly and easily to regain possession of a property, and landlords are typically represented by lawyers when they bring eviction proceedings. When tenants with valid defenses are represented by counsel, their chances of remaining in their homes increase significantly,” she stated.
Students in the Housing Law Clinic have provided direct legal representation to people who lost income due to the pandemic and partnered with local nonprofit organizations to advocate for housing-related policy changes aimed at reducing homelessness and heading off eviction. “I’ve seen firsthand the impact that legal representation can have on a renter navigating the eviction process,” Prusak stated. “That is why I believe providing more tenants with access to a lawyer could be the key to keeping more people in their homes.”
Vanderbilt Dean Chris Guthrie joined with the deans of other participating law schools on Aug. 30, 2021, in committing to taking meaningful action to combat the looming housing and eviction crises. The law schools’ efforts were praised in a press briefing today hosted by the White House and the Department of Justice, with administration officials including Garland, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Deputy Secretary Wally Adenyemo and Senior Advisor to the President and American Rescue Plan Gene Spurling urging that the efforts continue.
“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. Today, our work is far from over, and making real the promise of equal justice under law remains our urgent and unfinished mission,” Attorney General Garland said in a written statement.