In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat of eviction is real for millions of Americans. For the San Antonians who are unable to make their next rent payment, San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA) offers hope: their Tenants’ Rights Program, in which a volunteer attorney helps individuals negotiate with landlords to avoid evictions and prevent homelessness.
SALSA is an organization dedicated to offering low-income families free civil legal services. It was started nearly 20 years ago by Justice Phyllis Speedlin and attorney Karen Pozza, who saw the need for pro bono legal services in San Antonio. Today, SALSA is a corps of attorney volunteers who are recruited, trained, and supported by professional staff that connects them with clients in need. Through the Tenants’ Rights Program, these volunteer attorneys are empowered to assist residential tenants facing eviction.
The core of the Tenants’ Rights Program is negotiation and advocacy. Volunteer attorneys are able to offer advice and help tenants and landlords reach an agreement before a case reaches eviction. The negotiation process may allow the resident to avoid litigation altogether, coming to a compromise that mutually benefits the tenant and landlord and avoids eviction, whether that be a payment plan, an agreed-upon move out date, or an extended period of time for the tenant to move.
Through their work, SALSA has learned the pre-litigation phase is the most crucial period. And because much of their work happens pre-trial, volunteers aren’t required to know all aspects of landlord/tenant law to be an effective advocate for residents facing eviction. SALSA provides targeted training materials as well as mentors to assist volunteer attorneys in developing an effective strategy for their case. This support system allows volunteer attorneys to be strong advocates for their clients regardless of their initial familiarity with landlord/tenant law.
SALSA’s Tenants’ Rights Program is effective because it offers both the resident and the landlord a plan during the uncertainty of a looming eviction. Having a clear vision for the next steps can provide relief for both parties, which is usually fertile ground for negotiation and finding a pre-hearing resolution. Even if the tenant is required to move out at a later date, this settlement is still considered a positive outcome for the tenant because SALSA’s advocacy allowed them to keep the eviction off their record. For residents, an eviction is a permanent stain on their rental history, and it can impact someone for the rest of their life. A blemish on one’s credit may make a future landlord hesitant to rent out to someone, and the places that will accept them may be less desirable to live in. The repercussions of eviction could entail job loss, substandard housing, disruption of children from school, and homelessness.
Although there are city resources and alternative options for assistance in an eviction case, they can be difficult for tenants to obtain without an advocate. Lack of awareness can mean a tenant does not pursue state and federal resources designed to help prevent eviction, simply because they don’t know these programs exist. The volunteer attorneys of SALSA can work with tenants to obtain rental and relocation assistance, which benefits both the tenant and the landlord in the long run.
At its core, SALSA’s Tenants’ Rights Program is a homelessness prevention tool. When an advocate helps a tenant avoid eviction, the tenant can remain in their home and keep their housing record clean. The need for eviction assistance has always been important, but it’s become especially salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many San Antonians have lost their jobs. The homeless population is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Preventing an eviction is not only beneficial to the tenants facing eviction, but to the San Antonio community as a whole. Through their Tenants’ Rights Program, SALSA is serving those who need assistance, helping them stay in their homes through these unprecedented times. To learn more or to volunteer, visit the SALSA website.