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The 2020 coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc throughout the world. Last spring, as industries shut down and people were furloughed or laid off, many families faced financial hardship. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, in response to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act included stimulus checks to many Americans and a 120-day moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent. The moratorium was extended several times and the latest version expires June 30.
Unfortunately, many people who faced eviction were not aware of the moratorium. Two NAACP law fellows, Martina Tiku and Joe Schottenfeld, are working to keep renters in their homes through the new NAACP Housing Navigator program.
Tiku studied public policy as an undergrad at Duke University, and she received her law degree from Harvard Law School. Schottenfeld attended Yale for both his undergraduate degree and law degree.
This isn't Schottenfeld's first time working with the NAACP. While at Yale Law School, he was part of the clinical legal team that represented the NAACP's challenges to the 2020 census. Afterward, Schottenfeld joined the New Haven Legal Redress Committee of the NAACP's Greater New Haven Branch in Connecticut.
I was able to really see the ins and outs of the NAACP's legal might and its grassroots might as well," said Schottenfeld. "It was an extraordinary opportunity just to see how unbelievable and unprecedented the NAACP's groundwork is at the local level. That combination of high impact litigation and also real community-driven, embedded, service- oriented mindset led me to want to return to the NAACP after law school.
Tiku and Schottenfeld launched the pilot Housing Navigator program with the NAACP's Columbia, South Carolina branch. Tenants or individuals who are facing eviction or who may have already been evicted are connected to housing navigators who explain their rights as tenants and provide them with resources. The housing navigators are NAACP branch members or community volunteers who are interested in supporting other community members, said Tiku.
The housing navigator volunteers are given training and resource manuals. They guide tenants on where to get financial assistance, connect them with a pro bono attorney or other legal services, and provide information on other services such as suitable housing or homeless shelters. (Pro bono attorney donate free legal help to those who need it.)
What makes the NAACP Housing Navigator program really unique is that we are taking a holistic approach," said Tiku. "You have people who are coming for housing issues, but the navigator is really assessing what are the other needs that you have in your life right now? And how can we connect you with those resources?
The navigator program has partnerships with local law firms and the Richland County Bar Association in South Carolina to provide pro bono attorneys who may help facilitate a mediation between the tenant and the landlord or represent the tenant at an eviction hearing. The program also has partnerships with service organizations that support individuals experiencing homelessness.
"What the individual client might get out of the experience varies on a case-by-case basis," said Tiku. "But the overall structure of the program is that we're connecting our volunteers with individuals in the community who are at risk for eviction or are already facing homelessness and taking a personalized approach to ensure that they get the support that they need."
Despite the national moratorium on evictions, the navigators have seen cases in which landlords have told tenants that they are not eligible for the moratorium. Tiku said that the NAACP Housing Navigator program has helped address misinformation and inform people of the protections that exist for those facing eviction.
"Generally speaking, your landlord shouldn't be able to evict you for failure to pay rent, primarily if you've been impacted by COVID, you've lost your job, or your hours have been reduced, things like that," said Tiku. "Unfortunately, what we've been seeing, and one way that the navigator program has been especially impactful is a lot of people just don't know about the moratorium and not everyone who is in need has been able to take full advantage of it. And we are really working to just kind of correct that problem and make sure people are educated about the resources available to them."
Stanford Law School is another partner of the NAACP Housing Navigator program. Stanford's legal design lab has helped the program coordinators think through the core constituent elements of the navigator program and how they work, said Schottenfeld.
"They help us think about how to get volunteers to provide meaningful assistance to people in need with housing problems," explained Schottenfeld. "They're also thinking through how we can scale this effectively because what makes this fresh is how ambitious it is."
Schottenfeld said that from his perspective, the Housing Navigator program is something only the NAACP can provide at both the local and potentially national level because of the number of member volunteers who are active community leaders.
"As a result of that, because the NAACP has such extraordinary groundwork in so many different places and is such a respected and known institution with volunteers who can help out, it provides this unprecedented, unique opportunity to reach people in need at different junctures with services that they might not otherwise know where to go to," added Schottenfeld.