Benton Franklin Legal Aid pivots to prevent evictions

Benton Franklin Legal Aid Society, the nonprofit legal services agency that connects clients with volunteer attorneys, pivoted to helping area residents facing eviction in 2021.

Barb Otte-Potter

Barb Otte-Potter, executive director, said that prior to the pandemic, about 80% of its work centered on family issues. The pandemic, coupled with the end of a ban on evictions in October, prompted it to shift gears.

Even so, she said she was shocked by the need as revealed by a modest social media campaign in August.

A $3,200 grant paid for a four-week ad campaign on Facebook and Instagram. Whenever anyone in the Tri-Cities typed “eviction,” a Legal Aid ad with a link popped up.

It got 30,000 impressions and 350 clicks. There were 700 visitors to the application site and 432 visitors interacted by posting a comment, sharing the or tagging someone. The visitors were men and women, English and Spanish speakers.

Otte-Potter said she was in a state of near panic when she opened the web analytics report.

“When I first saw it and saw the over 30,000 impressions, I was just, ‘What?’” she recalled. “That’s how many people were talking about rents and evictions.”

Benton Franklin Legal Aid marshals local attorneys to provide pro bono – free – services to those who can’t otherwise afford them. It helps with everything from family law to bankruptcy, immigration, collections, guardianships, orders of protection and more.

“Anything I can find a volunteer for that’s not criminal,” she said.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a defender, but there is no provision to supply attorneys to low-income people with more ordinary legal matters. Legal Aid hadn’t previously had the bandwidth to work on housing, she said.

But Washington’s pandemic eviction ban ended in October and was replaced with a new set of rules that allow property owners to evict renters if certain conditions, such as pursuing rent assistance, are met. The new rules give renters the right to an attorney if they’re facing eviction.

The state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid asked the Benton Franklin Legal Aid to expand to help.

“I’m glad we did because we’ve been doing a lot of really great work,” Otte-Potter said. Evictions began in November. It is too early to have data about results, but she’s confident its efforts are paying off.

“We have helped quite a few people stay in their homes.”

Legal Aid received a grant to support its new housing justice program, with funding continuing in the first half of 2022.

Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Shea-Brown is the local bench’s designated point person working on addressing the expected deluge of eviction cases through a mediation process.

Legal Aid is part of a broad coalition of organizations working to mediate disputes between renters and property owners, particularly over inability to pay rent.

Benton County Human Resources, Goodwill, Dispute Resolution Center of Tri-Cities, the Housing Resource Center and the Northwest Justice Project are playing a role helping renters access assistance. Property owners may apply for assistance on a tenant’s behalf, though Otte-Potter said that is rare.

Once the moratorium lifted, Legal Aid sent representatives to attend court hearings to help tenants who didn’t have attorneys.

Tenants facing eviction can call 855-657-8387 or go to nwjustice.org for help.

Otte-Potter said she’s bracing for whatever the coming year brings, whether it is an uptick in bankruptcy cases after long periods of unemployment or other matters. She is not making any plans, beyond organizing the annual May golf tournament. The 2021 event raised about $10,000.

“I’m not planning for anything because I tried that for the last two years, and it’s done nothing but stress me out,” she said. “We just don’t know what’s coming down the road.”

Otte-Potter said Legal Aid had to cancel some of its primary fundraising events, but she credits the 360-member local bar association with stepping up, both in financial support and donated time.

“We have a really good bar. They really support our mission. They know we’re doing good,” she said

Supporters can call Legal Aid at 509-221-1824, or leave a check in the office drop box, 5219 W. Clearwater Ave., #5A.

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