In the weeks since record floods overwhelmed the Baton Rouge region, hundreds of families struggling to put their lives back together are finding their recovery complicated by legal problems involving proof of property ownership, contractor fraud, landlord-tenant disputes and more.
Those with nowhere else to turn have sought free assistance from Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which provides civil legal aid to low-income residents in 22 parishes. And because of an expanding partnership with Tulane Law School, the agency has been able to designate an attorney to focus on the specialized needs of low-income renter families.
“Many times renters get left out of recovery programs” typically aimed at homeowners with property damage, said SLLS Executive Director Laura Tuggle (L ’87). But renters face a plethora of challenges: eviction, displacement, mold and other unrepaired damage, rent increases because of rising housing costs, fair-housing issues, difficulty getting security deposits refunded and snags in securing short-term federal assistance. Families with children often face hurdles they may view as insurmountable without legal help.
“What we normally see is heightened post-disaster,” she said. “First, flood victims need boots on the ground, then more ‘suits’ on the ground to help with recovery.”
To address the flood-related cases involving families, SLLS hired Julia Wilson, a 2016 Tulane Law graduate, in October on a Lutz Family Public Interest Fellowship. The program began in 2014 through the generosity of corporate attorney Laurent C. Lutz (L ’86), and his wife, Marcia. What started with one, year-long fellowship, has expanded each year, putting new attorneys to work right away providing vital community services for families and children in need.
Hannah Groedel (L ’15, front, third from left) assisted families with domestic violence issues as the 2015 Lutz Fellow at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. SLLS Executive Director Laura Tuggle (L ’87) is at center.
The agency now has three recent graduates assisting in high-need areas: Baton Rouge flood-related cases, fair-housing issues for families and support for the Baton Rouge domestic violence center.
Wilson said she’s helping tenants assert their rights to ensure their continued access to low-income housing. Some renters have seen their leases canceled, or they’ve been forced into temporary housing while repairs are made, only to have their rent jump when they return, she said. One client who’d paid the same rent for more than a decade sought help after being hit with a $125-per-month increase that she couldn’t afford.
“For low-income families, even a modest increase in rent can have dire consequences,” Wilson said.
To date, three Lutz fellows have represented domestic violence survivors and abused and neglected children. All were retained as full-time staff attorneys with SLLS beyond their one-year fellowships. The program already had provided for two fellowships this year. But when it became clear that the agency needed more resources to help families affected by the flooding, the Lutzes “responded right away,” Tuggle said.
Laurent Lutz is executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Sallie Mae, a financial services company that offers college savings plans, loans and other products and services to help families save, plan and pay for higher education.
“When we put this program together, our hopes were to provide on-the-job training for Tulane Law grads and much needed assistance for those families most in need in Louisiana,” Lutz said. “That the program is now producing permanent, long-term positions for public assistance attorneys is remarkable.”
The fellows have “become a really valued part of our team,” Tuggle said. “It’s been a really good fit for us and the people we serve.”