Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Liman Fellow Elizabeth Pierson ’18: “When Home Isn’t Safe”

As Liman Fellow from 2018 to 2020 at Legal Action of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Elizabeth Pierson ’18 represented low-income renters asserting their right to safe and healthy housing. She is now a judicial law clerk in the Northern District of Illinois. Pierson wrote this essay, “When Home Isn’t Safe: Protecting Housing Rights During a Pandemic,” for The Liman Center Reports in the summer of 2020.

“Do I have to let my landlord in to make repairs?”

When I started my Liman Fellowship in Fall 2018, advising and representing low-income tenants who were sick of enduring poor housing conditions, nobody was asking me that question. My clients wanted to know how they could force their landlords to make repairs (tricky) and whether the hole in their ceiling was a defense to an eviction for unpaid rent (probably not). But in March 2020, COVID-19 began spreading across the nation, and Milwaukee became an early hotspot. Our African American and Latinx communities, which include many essential workers and inadequate healthcare resources, have been especially hard hit. Suddenly, Legal Action of Wisconsin began receiving phone calls from tenants terrified to let anyone into their homes, even a landlord or maintenance worker.

Elizabeth PiersonOn March 24, Governor Tony Evers issued a “Safer at Home” order, our version of a shelter-in-place decree. Three days later, he instituted a Temporary Ban on Evictions — for 60 days, all Wisconsin tenants could live free of fear that they might become homeless overnight. Both these orders affected tenants’ rights, including with regard to housing conditions: suddenly landlords were only required to make emergency repairs, rather than all repairs affecting health and safety as usually required by Wisconsin Statute §704.07. My colleagues and I set up a temporary help line to field questions about the impact of the new orders on tenants’ rights. We also created videos and flyers to educate people across Wisconsin about tenants’s rights and the eviction ban.

As evictions temporarily ground to a near-halt, we saw a spike in a different type of case: unemployment insurance denials. In normal times, if you checked the wrong box or gave a confusing answer on your application for unemployment insurance, you could fix it with a quick phone call to the Department of Workforce Development. These days, good luck getting through on the phone, and heaven help you if you miss the call from a claims agent. Minor errors and misunderstandings have blossomed into denials and months-long delays. People who lost employment in March wait until August for a hearing with an administrative law judge. And people with no income cannot pay their rent.

“In normal times, if you checked the wrong box or gave a confusing answer on your application for unemployment insurance, you could fix it with a quick phone call... These days, good luck getting through on the phone.” —Elizabeth Pierson ’18

The generosity and flexibility of the Liman Center have enabled me to pivot my practice to address the urgent needs of low-income Wisconsinites during this crisis, always working with an eye towards housing stability. While I now primarily operate under another grant, that grant requires me to focus on cases in certain areas of Milwaukee. With my Liman funding, I’ve been able to advise and represent clients from all over Milwaukee, and sometimes from elsewhere in the state. When we needed to address a sudden rise in calls from people trying to understand the new Executive Orders, I was able to help, even if the call came from Fond du Lac. When we decided to significantly increase our public outreach, I helped with that, too. I now represent clients in unemployment insurance appeals as well as eviction cases, and my familiarity with both sets of laws has made me a better advocate and counselor in both types of cases.

As of this writing (August 2020), Wisconsin’s eviction ban is long gone, and tenants are being evicted daily via Zoom — court proceedings have moved online because it is not safe to hold court in person at the county courthouse. Homelessness during a global pandemic is also not safe, but protections have run out for Wisconsin tenants, even those who lost income due to the virus.

Across Wisconsin and the nation, millions are struggling to survive. When appropriate, I still raise creative housing conditions defenses in eviction actions and negotiate with landlords and their lawyers to get repairs made — the original goal of my fellowship. But these days, I spend most of my time trying to secure basic income and housing stability for my clients. One client faced eviction with four young children, including a newborn. While I bought her some time by articulating a technical legal defense at her first court date, the real service I was able to render was in doggedly following up with a local agency, and her landlord, until we reached a deal to cover her significant arrears. Another client was denied unemployment benefits because he answered a confusing question about disability benefits incorrectly. I helped him understand what was really being asked, and how to describe his family’s income, in a way that convinced the administrative law judge to overturn the denial and grant him benefits. He’ll use those payments to pay overdue bills and care for his foster children. This is unglamorous work. It attempts to eke the best possible outcomes out of systems that are stacked against low-income Wisconsinites. Many of my COVID-era clients tell me they have never dealt with “something like this” before, whether that something is a termination notice from their landlord, interrupted income, or an impenetrable bureaucracy. As more and more people experience the incredible barriers to health and prosperity that low-income people in Wisconsin face, maybe pressure will grow to lower those barriers.