As COVID-19 Exacerbates Financial Insecurity, Penn Law Students Offer Legal Assistance

Pro bono projects address employment, housing and income in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Max Mester

Several groups of Penn Law students have collaborated with local legal aid advocates on pro bono projects to help provide relief to communities that have suffered tremendously from the COVID-19 pandemic.

These student groups operate within the Toll Public Interest Center, Penn Law’s public service center, and have adapted past projects to the virtual environment in addition to creating new ones specifically for COVID-19 relief. .

All Penn Law students must complete 70 hours of pro bono law-related work supervised by an attorney to graduate. Pro bono work is an unpaid public service in the legal field.

The pro bono projects aim to alleviate some of the employment, housing and income challenges that the pandemic has exacerbated.

Penn Housing Rights Project

The Penn Housing Rights Project has existed at Penn Law for several years, but has become even more essential during the pandemic. The project advocates for low-income tenants facing eviction in Philadelphia, both through direct representation and a tenant helpline.

Third-year law students and PHRP volunteers Madison Gray and Samuel Whillans work with law firms to increase their ability to defend unrepresented tenants. Both Gray and Whillans began working with PHRP during their first year at Penn Law and are now board members.

In response to the housing crisis precipitated by COVID-19, Philadelphia has declared a moratorium on evictions for limited periods that continue to be extended from time to time. The constant changes to Philadelphia’s response have been a challenge for attorneys, according to Whillans.

Since the Philadelphia Housing Court has not fully transitioned to a virtual platform, many pro bono attorneys are not comfortable appearing in court due to security concerns. Lawyers’ unease has exacerbated the problem of tenants facing eviction, and many tenants are having to defend themselves in court.

“When the tenant is unrepresented, it’s a really unfair battle, and it ends up in judgment against them even though they might have valid legal claims against eviction,” Gray said.

Gray and Whillans hope to bridge the gap between their advocacy work and the defense of safe and affordable housing. This would involve advocating for City Council bills for low-income tenants and working with tenants’ unions and lawyers involved in tenant-led activism.

“A goal that Sam and I both share is to connect the micro level eviction work of the project to more macro work of the housing justice movement,” Gray said.

Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund

The Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund is a nonprofit organization that provides forgivable loans to Pennsylvania-based small businesses that have suffered financially due to COVID-19. Angela Wu, a second-year law student, has worked for the fund since May and is currently working as the coordinator of the application review process.

Wu said law students are responsible for screening applications to find potential loan recipients. The Fund has provided more than 600 struggling small businesses with more than $2.5 million in loans, and they hope to double that impact by December.

Wu was motivated to join the Fund because she said she felt helpless as a student in the wake of the pandemic. She plans to continue working at the Fund in the future and added that the organization’s support of Philadelphia businesses has made the project very personal.

“A lot of the small businesses that we law students went to when we were still in Philadelphia, those are the kinds of businesses that we can give back to and help right now when they need it,” she said.

Philadelphia Legal Assistance

Third-year law student Emily Deliz has worked with Philadelphia Legal Assistance for two and a half years. PLA deals with family law by providing low-income clients with advice to prepare them for their court hearings on matters related to custody or domestic violence.

Deliz said PLA’s model previously revolved around in-person work, and moving to a virtual platform has been a challenge.

“We have a lot of clients who are survivors of domestic violence,” Deliz said. “These are really difficult situations to handle on the phone. There can be a level of wariness talking to someone on the phone versus a small office.

After initially working in a client-facing role, Deliz currently works in a supervisory role, where she helps new lawyers find advice to give to their clients. PLA’s goal of increasing the accessibility of legal services is particularly meaningful to Deliz, and it’s why she has worked with the project for so long.

“I really believe in [the project’s] underlying mission, which is to provide legal advice to people for whom it is otherwise unavailable,” Deliz said. “I don’t think money should make a difference.”

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