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University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students spearhead pro bono projects for COVID-19 pandemic relief

November 02, 2020

The economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on our communities cannot be overstated: small businesses have shuttered, thousands of workers have lost their jobs, and an indeterminate number of renters continue to face potential eviction. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the pandemic pushed many law students out of the physical classroom and their work into the virtual world of Zoom, it did not dampen their ambitions to use their skills and privilege and help their community get through these unprecedented times.

Shortly after Philadelphia – and the rest of the world – shut down, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students began to organize. Several student-led groups within the Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC) came up with creative, socially-distant ways for law students to collaborate with local legal aid advocates who have been working hard to provide relief to those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund

Angela Wu L’22 began working with the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund right around the time the non-profit opened its virtual doors this past summer. Primarily, the PA 30 Day Fund disperses forgivable loans to small businesses across the state who were struggling to survive through income interruptions the pandemic has caused.

“A lot of small businesses are in danger of closing for good. They are also in danger of going into incredible amounts of debt because they’ve experienced so many losses that are really unexpected,” Wu explained. “Our goal is to disperse small forgivable loans to these small businesses as ‘bridge loans’ while they wait for government funding or while they wait for their business to open again.”

The PA 30 Day Fund, which was modeled after a similar fund in Virginia, operates on donations. According to Wu, many folks who knew about the work the Fund was doing donated the $1,200 they received from the CARES Act. Others made donations from alternative sources because they saw local businesses struggling and they wanted to help.

Wu noted that the PA 30 Day Fund has been working with Penn Law students “from the minute it started” and is still “almost entirely student run,” aside from the advisory board, which is responsible for the fundraising.

The maximum bridge loan the PA 30 Day Fund finances is $3,000. When student volunteers review loan applications submitted by businesses, one of their main considerations is how effective the funds will be to assist the business.

“Because it’s only $3,000, we’re looking for businesses where this $3,000 will have a significant impact or actually be able to help them,” Wu said. “One of the main goals in funding a business is to save as many jobs as possible. So, if they say that they want the funds to pay for all four of their part-time employees for two weeks, that’s great. That’s definitely something that would weigh heavily in favor of funding.”

Wu added that businesses that would use the funds to pay rent or utilities while they await government funding are likely to get funded, and those that demonstrate meaningful connections to their communities are also prioritized.

“If the business has been around for 40 years, you’ve grown up with this business, everybody knows about the business, and the business has donated tons of money to their community in the past to help them, we want to give back to businesses like that,” Wu said.

Wu also explained that, because the goal is to fund as many businesses as possible, very few businesses are turned away.

“Even if they don’t get funding immediately, we have a pretty robust waitlist process,” Wu said. “We don’t reject many. Those we can’t fund now, we hope to fund them later. When we get more funding, we pull from our waitlist and then push funding through there.”

Although the bridge “loans” are forgivable, many of the businesses that receive funds ultimately “pay it forward” by donating the money back when they are more financially stable.

Since opening, the PA 30 Day Fund now has branches in Berks, Blair, and Cumberland County. As of September, the PA 30 Day Fund had raised over $2.5 million dollars and distributed funds to over 600 businesses; their goal is to double that by December.

Throughout her work on this project, Wu has been inspired by the spirit of both the businesses scrambling to keep their doors open and the student volunteers committed to assisting the businesses through the pandemic.

“Especially because I’m a 2L and I haven’t really had any substantive legal experience yet, it’s really great to be able to see something you can do for people in your community and have that feedback almost instantaneously,” Wu said. “A lot of our volunteers have personally donated to the Fund too, because it’s been great. We obviously know the process the funding takes, so we’ve all been personally inspired by all the stories.”

Philadelphia Legal Assistance Unemployment Compensation Hotline

Ben Bolnick L’21 worked in the unemployment compensation unit of Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) during his 1L summer. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought about huge waves of layoffs, he knew unemployment offices would need additional personnel. When he reached out to TPIC, he found that the folks at PLA recognized the same problem, and he volunteered to assist in setting up a solution.

“We have so much more ability to do good and to help than we even realize,” said Bolnick. “One of the reasons I got involved was because I felt so helpless during COVID and there were so many people really struggling and really suffering. I didn’t feel like I could do all that much. Then we had this opportunity. There were over 1,000 people who we helped fill out those applications. That’s 1,000 people we helped get money that could be really helpful to them in whatever situation they’re in.”

Bolnick worked with two other Law School students – Mary Jane Dumankaya L’20 and Marissa Schwartz L’22 – to help PLA set up an Unemployment Compensation hotline through which callers could receive help navigating the unemployment compensation system. Though PLA usually only works with people who meet a certain income threshold, there was no eligibility requirement to access assistance through this hotline.

Technicians at PLA created a digital portal that routed hotline calls to volunteers’ phones. Volunteers, who signed up in shifts, included law students, PLA staff, and pro bono attorneys. In the event that a volunteer could not assist a caller, the volunteer would contact Bolnick, Dumankaya, or Schwartz, depending on who was “on-call” that day. The “on-call” leader would act as a backstop and figure out how to assist the caller.

In addition to connecting callers to volunteers, the portal also recorded information so that project leaders could review data daily to determine whether any callers still needed assistance. Language services stood out as the most common need.

“We were getting so many people who needed interpretation that we actually set up an automated email,” Bolnick explained. “If someone on the portal checked that a person needed interpretation, an automatic email would go out to the three leaders so that whomever was on call for the day could then reach out to the student volunteers who spoke that language and see if they were available to give the person a call back and walk them through the process in their native language. It made the system more efficient.”

Other issues arose as well. Some callers were confused by the multitude of different unemployment compensation programs and unsure which program to pursue; other callers expressed concern when they did not hear from the unemployment compensation office for weeks at a time. Volunteers flagged the concerns, then PLA lawyers returned the calls to explain the different unemployment compensation programs and verify that callers’ applications had been sent correctly.

“It didn’t take all that much training,” Bolnick said of the preparation necessary on the part of student volunteers, “and it didn’t take all that much knowledge. It was mobilizing people who were passionate and mobilizing people who cared and were willing to put in the work. We were able to really make a difference, even as law students. We’re not practicing attorneys yet, but we’re able to really help some people. That was really impactful to me and definitely a lesson I took away from it.”

Bolnick emphasized that the unemployment hotline was as successful as it was this summer because of a lot of hard work by a network of committed advocates.

“There were students who joined us every week on the front lines helping people through this application,” Bolnick said. “Huge props to Sarah Egoville and the folks at PLA who set this whole thing up. A lot of this work providing legal assistance gets overlooked, and a lot of the folks at PLA were working around the clock nonstop for months on end figuring out how to help people. The work is so immensely valuable even if it might often go underappreciated.”

Penn Housing Rights Project

In a time wherein the most salient and repeated advice has been to “stay home,” the Penn Housing Rights Project (“PHRP”) set out to ensure that local renters facing eviction and other landlord-related disputes would be able to do just that. This semester, PHRP volunteers are working on two main projects. One involves virtually representing tenants facing eviction in pre-trial settlement hearings; the other involves answering calls on a hotline set up to assist tenants with landlord disputes.

New Jersey’s government has issued an eviction moratorium that precludes landlords from evicting tenants who have not paid their rent. Housing advocates, including PHRP project leader Maddi Gray L’21 have pointed out that this moratorium – like others across the country – has gaps that could be harmful to tenants. A major issue housing advocates are seeing in the wake of this moratorium is the fabrication of “emergency situations” by landlords who are eager to turn over apartments wherein tenants have fallen behind on their rent.

“Since they can’t evict people on nonpayment of rent, there are extenuating circumstances where landlords can try to get rid of people by making allegations about people being really rowdy in the unit or disturbing other people,” Gray explained. “We talked at the training about how to confront allegations like these, which could be trumped up just because the landlord wants to clear out the unit.”

Additionally, once the moratorium lifts, there is no protection for tenants who owe months of back pay.

“There is such a high volume of people who are falling behind on their rent right now,” Gray said. “The eviction moratoriums don’t say you don’t have to pay your rent. They say you’re not going to get evicted until the end of the pandemic or until the government thinks that it’s safe. But they aren’t saying the rent is forgiven, so people are amassing these huge amounts of unpaid rent that their landlords are eventually going to try to collect.”

Students who volunteered to assist with settlement hearings were assigned to an attorney from PHRP’s partner organization, the UrbanPromise Legal Clinic, which is based in Camden. From there, cases can vary. Depending on the complexity of the issue, some volunteers may stay on the same case for months at a time; others may settle the issue in less than a week.

Reaching a settlement agreement can be beneficial for tenants in a number of different ways. Project leader Sam Whillans L’21 explained that sometimes legal advocates know to ask for things that tenants may not otherwise consider.

“For example, you can file a motion requesting that the eviction not affect the tenant’s credit rating,” said Whillans. “It’s a simple motion, and if you get the landlord to agree in writing that they are not going to oppose that, it’s good for the tenant.”

Both Gray and Whillans noted that New Jersey’s decision to hold eviction proceedings over Zoom presented both solutions and challenges for tenants. On the one hand, virtual proceedings mean that tenants will not be forced to risk their and their family’s health to defend their homes; on the other hand, virtual trials deepen inequities for folks who do not have access to the internet.

“Default judgements from people not being able to come to their hearings have always been a problem,” said Whillans. “In the past, it’s always been about how close you live to the courthouse or whether you could get time off work. Now, the digital divide cuts differently. It’s still inequitable, and there are still people who aren’t going to be able to make it, but it’s not necessarily the same people. It’s a different landscape when things are digital.”

In PHRP’s other project this semester, students are working with Community Legal Services (CLS) to staff a hotline that tenants can call for advice if they are facing other landlord-related issues.

Though PHRP hopes to expand the scope of student involvement in the future, current volunteers are focusing specifically on lease breaking and illegal retention of security deposits. The group decided to focus on these issues both because they are common issues tenants are dealing with in the wake of the pandemic and because these are issues with which students are, unfortunately, familiar.

“We often get questions from students within the Penn community who are going through these issues, especially now with COVID-19,” Whillans said. Many students have had to break their leases or had issues with landlords illegally retaining their security deposits.”

In addition to the onslaught of eviction-related work looming near the horizon, the pandemic has also brought with it a profound amount of uncertainty for housing advocates. To serve as volunteers, students will have to remain flexible and responsive to shifts in the law.

“There has been an everchanging landscape of rules in the landlord-tenant space, and that has made it hard to plan for the future,” Whillans said. “We have these eviction moratoriums that are being extended month to month, and there’s always uncertainty. Every time the moratoriums are going to expire, all the advocates gear up to step in.”

Amidst this, PHRP also endeavors to emphasize the importance of the vast amount of non-legal solutions relevant to housing issues. Gray noted that the organization is hoping to use their electronic mailing list as a means of spreading information about tenant organizing and policy work that is happening both locally and in other cities across the country. The goal is to use the group as an information hub accessible to anyone interested in learning more about the “holistic fight for housing justice.”

For Gray, the most important part of the work being done through PHRP is the recognition of what she called the “human externalities” of legal disputes, which are especially apparent in the wake of the pandemic.

“There’s a legal argument of: technically this tenant didn’t pay rent, and they breached their contract, so they don’t get to stay in their apartment,” she explained. “But there’s a human, moral argument of: it’s going to put this person’s life at risk if they have to leave their apartment and don’t have anywhere else to stay. We’ve seen some law try to catch up with the human argument – the CDC’s eviction moratorium, for instance – but when you’re in a doctrinal class and you’re trying to learn the pure rules, there’s not a lot of space to understand what it means for people’s lives. These cases really demonstrate that sometimes we need to remember the stakes of certain legal decisions.”

Read more about information on TPIC and the ways in which our law students are using their legal educations to serve their communities.