Housing Help Ongoing Work

Housing issues can haunt anyone, but the most affected are those who can least afford the problems.

That’s where Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma can help, according to John P. Kerr, Jr.

Kerr, an attorney in the Tulsa office, said the people most affected are living in low rent and subsidized housing facilities.

It is not unusual, he said, to be heading to court to represent a client even as the sheriff is going to the site to serve an eviction notice.

Intervention on behalf of people who can least afford to lose their homes is part of a day’s work for Kerr and other members of the Legal Aid Services staff.

Most of Kerr’s work involves the housing issues, but he also is updating himself on bankruptcy law to provide representation in that court.

Many clients are the elderly, disabled, or someone whose wages are being garnished that would result in losing their homes, he continued. While the law allows up to 25 percent of the wages to be garnished to pay bills, oftentimes those same funds are designated for rent.

When that happens, the court orders the creditors to give the money back, Kerr said. The same applies to people receiving Social Security checks. These funds are exempt from garnishment and creditors cannot attach a bank account with these funds for payment of bills. Often it is medical bills that cause the problem. People are just meeting their obligations when they are affected by a major illness that causes them to miss work. Since they have no health insurance, and they have lost time from work, they have unexpected financial problems.

Helping people with housing problems is a high priority for Legal Aid.

People without dependents must take bankruptcy and file Chapter 13 to protect themselves because garnishment rules don’t apply, Kerr said. However, changes in those laws in November 2005 have made this action more difficult.

Many landlord-tenant disputes are settled before they go to court which can involve the private landlord and public housing authority.

Some are eviction notices while others are disagreements about what should be done with the property.

Too often, landlords do not understand laws protecting tenants, he said. ‘‘I have gone to landlords many times to explain the law and what they need to do. Most of the time there is compliance. If not, that is when the issue is taken to court.’’

Tenants’ rights are protected under the Fair Housing Act and American For Disabilities Act, Kerr said. There are situations where a person who is disabled causes problems. Reasons vary, but often it is because they have gone off their medicine and behavior becomes erratic.

The Fair Housing Act allows landlords to ‘‘bend the rules’’ of the contract so the person can stay in their home.

But there also are times when a tenant is at fault.

That may mean that an agreement must be reached so the tenant can move from the premises without an eviction notice added to his record, Kerr said. Landlords using the Internet can do a background check and learn whether an eviction action has ever been taken. Unless removed by court order, that eviction notice can haunt people for many years as they seek housing.

The attorney also recalled a time when there was a bad relationship between the landlord and tenant.

Frustrated, the landlord went to the rental property and removed a wheel chair ramp, Kerr continued. ‘‘I had a quick meeting with him and explained the law, adding that he faced fines if corrective action was not taken. The landlord quickly replaced the ramp.’’

When the tenant did file an action under the Fair Housing Act, the court found that no relief was due because such quick action in replacing the ramp.

Should it happen that a landlord brings an illegal eviction notice against a client, every effort is made to talk to the those involved outside the courtroom. Sometimes going to court is the only answer to resolve a problem.

‘‘We have a good relationship with the Tulsa Housing Authority,’’ Kerr said. ‘‘They do a good job helping people. Our objective is to work out a solution that will satisfy everyone.’’

‘‘We do not try to use the courts as an avenue for relief,’’ he continued. ‘‘We don’t go to court to try to impress a client. Our role is to get a resolution to a housing problem so people can continue to live in their homes reasonably undisturbed.’’

But as he looks ahead, Kerr sees the rights of clients have diminished during the past few years.

This makes it more challenging to help people at the federal level, he said. Oklahoma has the landlord-tenant act that handles most issues in district court. If there are problems involving federal law, then clients have that additional resource.

Kerr’s work, and those of other attorneys at Legal Aide Services of Oklahoma is made easier because of a bank of part time lawyers handling a phone bank.

That group screens calls, helps people with issues when possible and helps cut investigative time, sending cases on that need court action, he said.

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