Carrie Melbie planned to represent herself Monday morning when she showed up at the Olmsted County courthouse with an eviction notice.
Instead, she met Brian Lipford, an attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, who helped represent her regarding an eviction claim by her landlord.
“They actually listened to my side,” Melbie said after having the eviction expunged.
She was one of 14 tenants in court Monday.
She and Nick Black had already left the Andover Park Apartments, where they had lived for 10 months in conditions they said were unacceptable. When they decided to withhold a rent payment to encourage repairs, they were given an eviction notice.
Melbie, a certified nursing assistant, had moved to Rochester temporarily to help her brother who was being treated at Mayo Clinic. She and Black racked up $7,000 in hotel expenses in approximately two months before ending up living out of their car.
While Melbie was able to find work at The Waters, Black said his concert booking business suffered from the temporary relocation.
When they found an affordable apartment, they thought it was an upgrade, but it created a new level of worry as requested repairs appeared to be overlooked and a June 22 shooting occurred outside their door.
With her brother doing better and heading back to California, Melbie and Black are returning to Spicer, but they didn’t want to leave town with a mark on their rental record.
“I said I just want to leave and have my voice heard,” Melbie said, noting she felt her afternoon in court was a success.
Funds running out
Eviction Prevention Project holds clinics twice a week — Monday and Thursdays — offering free legal help to people in court facing eviction, but it’s a program that’s been running low on funds.
Karen Fairbairn Nath, executive director of Legal Assistance of Olmsted County, said a $50,000 grant from Mayo Clinic used to kick-start the program catering to low-income clients has run out, but work continues.
Last week, Mayo Clinic awarded Legal Assistance of Olmsted County a $30,000 grant for its overall work, with at least $10,000 of the amount being used to staff the evictions clinic.
Additionally, the twice-weekly effort is getting a boost from members of the Mayo Clinic legal team.
On Monday, Chris Wendt, who usually handles immigration and employment cases for the Clinic, sat in on Melbie’s case, hoping to soak in what it takes to work with people facing eviction.
“Personally, it’s an opportunity to grow and learn a new area of law,” he said of the pro bono work.
But, it’s more than that. He said it’s important for Mayo Clinic to help address concerns as a major employer.
The clinic isn’t alone in offering legal staff. IBM attorneys are also contributing to the effort.
Mayo Clinic has 14 staff members — seven attorneys and seven support staff — offering assistance, and IBM has five to 10 staff members joining the effort, with the majority being attorneys.
John McBroom, an IBM attorney, said the effort is perfect for the company’s in-house staff, which has been growing in Rochester to support patent work throughout the company.
“This sounds like the perfect opportunity for our folks,” he said, noting the IBM attorneys will start working with the eviction clinic later this month.
Ashton Schatz, a Mayo Clinic attorney who is also president of the Legal Assistance of Olmsted County Board, said joining the legal aid services seemed obvious since supplemental legal services will help funding go further.
“There’s a tremendous amount of resources put into this each week,” she said, noting the in-house attorneys can help ease the burden on the agencies’ attorneys.
While the volunteer attorneys won’t be taking cases to the courtroom for awhile, Fairbairn Nath said their help allows legal aid attorneys to continue the effort that started in January.
“This is what a legal aid organization needs to be doing,” Fairbairn Nath said.
Since January, the two organizations have been working with tenants and landlords to prevent evictions, or at least ease the consequences for people facing the loss of their home.
By the end of May, 90 of the 207 eviction cases scheduled at the Olmsted County courthouse received help from the evictions clinic. Another 108 cases never reached the clinic for reasons that ranged from canceled or dismissed hearings to tenants who declined help or had their own attorney, according to Kayleen Asmus, a staff attorney with Legal Assistance of Olmsted County.
Asmus said the majority of cases taken by the two legal services end with an agreement between the landlord and tenant, with more than half resulting in expungements and others on a path toward potential removal from the tenant’s record.
The legal aid organizations are not alone. Social workers from Olmsted County and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota are on hand at clinics to ensure people have access to services needed to keep their homes, as well as resources that can put them on a better track.
Fairbairn Nath said the majority of people she has seen through the eviction clinics seem to be there as a result of a one-time crisis. While Melbie faced an unexpected need to temporarily relocate and care for her brother, Fairbairn Nath said others have seen an unexpected job loss, injury or expense get in the way of a rent payment.
“There are so many people who are living one crisis from not being able to pay their landlord,” she said.
Fairbairn Nath said she expects her agency will seek another Mayo Shared Value Award later this year to continue the efforts started with the initial $50,000 grant that started efforts.
Erin Sexton, Mayo Clinic’s community engagement director, said the organization is proud of its role in helping create and sustain the effort.
“Mayo Clinic is committed to improving the health and well-being of those who live in Rochester and surrounding communities,” she said in a statement. “This program plays a vital role in those efforts by keeping more families in their homes.”