Tenant Advocacy Project Celebrates Five Years
LASC’s Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) marked its fifth anniversary in March. Since its inception, attorneys and intake specialists have set up shop daily at the Franklin County eviction court to provide free, same-day legal representation to lower-income Central Ohioans facing eviction.
The current incarnation of TAP was the brainchild of now-managing attorney of the program, Jyoshu Tsushima, who was then an LASC volunteer who worked in private practice. At the time, LASC’s housing staff was representing tenants in about 10-15 cases per week, but no one was at court every morning operating a daily clinic designed to help people that had not yet gotten in touch with legal aid. There had been an earlier on-site clinic project called PBTAP, which was a collaboration between LASC and the CBA and spearheaded by firm champions including Jim Abrams of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, but that had only been once per week. Jyoshu envisioned something more comprehensive. The original model was used as the basis for a grant proposal for attorneys to attend eviction court every day.
The idea developed after seeing the obvious need, Jyoshu said. “Before TAP, less than one percent of tenants were represented by an attorney at eviction trial, while the vast majority of landlords were represented,” he said. “The more I represented tenants on housing issues, the more apparent it became that tenants’ rights are often unenforced until an attorney advocates for a tenant, especially in eviction cases.”
From the start, it was clear TAP could make a real difference. “The first few clinics were an entirely new experience,” said Maddie Berry, then a legal aid volunteer attending law school before joining LASC as a staff attorney. “No one was sure what to do or how to react to us being at eviction court. It felt very innovative and like I was playing a very small part in something that could end up being important. Everyone was excited and eager to help.”
Despite its growing pains, TAP volunteer and Dinsmore & Shohl partner Bill Mattes recalls how well prepared the volunteers were because of the training offered by OSLSA Pro Bono and Community Engagement Director Dianna Parker and other staff members. Bill says taking summer associates to TAP clinics was an eye-opening experience for the young attorneys and gave them a sometimes-jarring look at how “legal machinery” is exploited to displace residents from their homes. Underscoring the importance of equal access to justice, Bill asked them—well-educated young professionals—to imagine how intimidating and dehumanizing the experience must be for someone facing the loss of their home without anyone to advocate for them. “You could have heard a pin drop,” he said.
Since then, LASC has expanded funding and staff so that several attorneys—along with a social worker, support staff, and volunteers—are present every day to represent tenants facing eviction. Having found its footing, Taft Law partner Jim Abrams notes that increased organization has helped the program expand its capacity and offer other wraparound services while also making more tenants aware of available resources. In addition, the model established in Franklin County has been replicated in other counties, including Fairfield, Delaware, Washington, and Athens Counties.
According to Jyoshu, it has been a challenge to build TAP into the program it is now, and LASC still faces significant hurdles in achieving its goal of providing all tenants adequate legal representation. Despite the growing body of committed volunteers and staff, there simply aren’t enough attorneys to provide help to everyone who needs it, particularly with the continued bottleneck of housing issues caused by the lingering pandemic.
That’s why LASC is always searching for more volunteers. Asked what he would say to potential volunteers who have limited free time or are hesitant to get involved with TAP, Bill Mattes’ advice is simple: “You will grow more as a lawyer, mentor, and community leader if you donate your time and understand exactly how precariously [some lower-income tenants] live. And if you cannot donate your time, or are intimidated by the thought of going to court, consider donating two or three hours of your billable rate to help fund the program on an annual basis. The funds are sorely needed to continue and expand the program.”
LASC also encourages attorneys committed to social justice issues to apply for a TAP position. Thomas Pope, TAP staff attorney, says his experience with the program has been invaluable and deeply rewarding. “It’s inspiring to be on the front lines of fighting for social justice in Ohio—seeing firsthand what systemic injustice does to communities and being empowered to push back against those injustices. TAP has absolutely sharpened the skills I developed throughout my academic years and has provided me with substantially more trial and courtroom experience than one would expect to get within their first few years in practice.”
OSLSA thanks all the staff attorneys, volunteers, support staff, and social workers who have helped make the Tenant Advocacy Project a successful program that has extended critical legal aid to thousands of Central Ohio tenants over the past five years.