Celebrating pro bono week with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project

 |   Beth Henderson - Pro Bono Director

abstract picture of home and gavel

This week marks the 11th anniversary of the American Bar Association’s National Celebration of Pro Bono. It also coincides with the last week of Microsoft’s annual Give Campaign, which celebrates our employees’ volunteerism and charitable giving. I’m proud to work at a company that encourages us to give back to the communities in which we live and work. In our Legal Affairs group, this takes the form of each of our attorneys being asked to take on a commitment to provide an average of 30 hours of pro bono service each year on causes about which they and the company are passionate, including immigration, assisting veterans and criminal justice.

In 2020, the need for pro bono services is greater than ever. The current Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis have created an acute need for legal assistance in areas such as unemployment benefits, small business support, protection from domestic violence and eviction prevention. One of the organizations dedicated to filling this need is the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project (HJP). Microsoft has been proud to partner with HJP this year to help provide legal services and digital transformation support to help tenants who are facing eviction but who cannot afford an attorney.

Over the last year, situations like the following have become all too common:

Lisa1 is a single mom, woman of color, and hourly worker in King County. For years, Lisa has rented a small house in South Seattle where she and her three-year-old son live. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, she had always paid her rent on time. She fell behind on her rent in May after her employer cut her hours and her savings ran out. Her landlord did not think he would be able to pay the mortgage without Lisa’s rental income and believed the only option was to evict Lisa and sell the house.

While Washington and Seattle have issued eviction moratoria to prevent eviction for non-payment of rent during the pandemic until the end of 2020, grounds remain for evictions including a landlord’s desire to sell a rental property.

After her landlord initiated the eviction process, Lisa packed up her belongings and moved with her son to a friend’s house, where they found temporary shelter sleeping on an air mattress. Lisa wasn’t sure how long she would be able to stay with friends, or when they would be able to find another place of their own because her income has not kept up with the cost of living in Seattle and King County.

Shortly after Lisa received an eviction notice, HJP contacted her to see how they could help and began exploring ways to ensure she and her son would have stable housing.

In King County, statistics are indeed proving that tenants like Lisa are not the exception: 

  • Rent for an average sized home in King County, where Microsoft’s corporate headquarters are located, is more than $2,200 per month. A household is estimated to need an annual income of $90,000 to afford it.2
  • In 2018, nearly half of households in the county did not earn this much, and 1 in 5 households earned $40,000 or less.3
  • The recession and unemployment caused by Covid-19 has made even more renters like Lisa vulnerable to evictions. Across Washington state, over 150,000 households were not able to pay September’s rent. These households are vulnerable now and will be more vulnerable when the eviction moratoria end. 4

People of color like Lisa are particularly vulnerable. Though the eviction crisis is deeply impacting people across all demographics, it is disproportionately affecting communities of color. From 2013-2017, African American and Black adults in King County faced eviction at rates 5.5 times that of white adults, and Latinx adults were evicted at 1.9 times that rate. 5 This is in part the result of income disparities, as median incomes for white and Asian households far exceed those of black or Latinx households in the region.

The Covid-19 pandemic is widening this gap as job losses since March 2020 have disproportionately impacted people of color. More than 35% of the county’s Black, African American, Native American and Pacific Islander workers filed unemployment claims since March of this year, compared to under 23% for white members of the workforce.6 Approximately 42% of Black households that rent have fallen behind on rental payments. Without successful efforts to help tenants in need the racial disparities in the eviction process will only increase.

Edmund Witter, Managing Attorney at HJP, shared that only 8% of tenants in eviction proceedings had legal representation between 2013 and 2017. However, when tenants facing eviction were able to access HJP services, they stayed housed 86% of the time.

“Right now, with a changing legal landscape and more people falling behind on rent, we need pro bono assistance more than ever,” Witter said.

As the economic and housing implications of the Covid-19 pandemic increased in magnitude, Microsoft employees began looking for ways to provide pro bono support, and our pro bono team made the connection with HJP. Microsoft attorneys volunteered their time with HJP to assist vulnerable tenants by providing free access to information, resources and legal services.

In addition to providing volunteer legal services, Microsoft and HJP realized that there was an opportunity to better leverage technology to help HJP scale its response to the growing eviction crisis.

The pro bono team also saw an opportunity to create digital tools to help HJP make decisions about where to focus services to make the greatest impact. In July, more than a dozen volunteers – including legal professionals, engineers, designers, researchers, data scientists and project managers – came together to design and build solutions for HJP as part of the company’s annual one-week Hackathon.

The team, working in partnership with HJP employees, worked to redesign the HJP’s website to increase their reach to clients and volunteers while providing more accessible information for clients to learn about landlord-tenant legal issues. The team also created data visualization tools using Power BI for analyzing the eviction information HJP collects for King County. These tools provide a real-time visual of where evictions are happening in King County, including an evictions heatmap to help HJP show policymakers that tenants remain at risk despite the current eviction moratoriums and to advocate for effective solutions. The map will also be an important tool once the eviction moratoriums are lifted, by allowing HJP and community leaders to assess at scale where evictions are occurring.

evictions heatmap

The Housing Justice Project’s (HJP) new evictions heatmap.

“With the heat map, we are able to better understand where evictions are happening and why they are happening,” explained Witter. “It’s the first resource in this area that shows evictions in real time and will be very important in how we work with communities who will be impacted by eviction in the months ahead due to Covid-19.”

Through the data presented in the heatmap, HJP can now conduct more immediate outreach to tenants who have received an eviction order and counsel them on their options.

In Lisa’s case, HJP helped Lisa learn that her landlord was willing to allow Lisa to return if she could cover the rent. HJP helped arrange for rental assistance, and now Lisa and her son have their own place to live again.

Learn more:

King County Bar Association Housing Justice Project

American Bar Association Pro Bono Celebration

Also, learn about Microsoft’s separate commitment to housing justice, the Affordable Housing Initiative

 


1 Client name changed to protect identity.

2 The Evictions Study: https://evictions.study/washington/

3 King County: https://kingcounty.gov/independent/forecasting/King%20County%20Economic%20Indicators/Household%20Income.aspx

4 The Evictions Study: https://evictions.study/washington/

5 Ibid.

6 King County: https://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/health/covid-19/data/impacts/unemployment.aspx

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