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Anti-eviction advocates partner with Stetson Law for pro bono legal work

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The Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program (PEDP) is highlighting its partners this month, thanking them for pro bono legal work and for their continued involvement in the program.

Stetson Law is one of eight community partners working with the eviction diversion team, and the latest to receive public recognition

The PEDP operates under the Community Law Program (CLP), an organization that’s been serving the legal needs of Pinellas County’s underprivileged since 1989. Lindsey Jinright, a Stetson Law student and legal assistant for CLP, has played a crucial role in helping her school collaborate with the eviction diversion program, according to CLP staff.

Stetson students need to work 60 pro-bono (volunteer) hours to receive their degrees. According to Jinright, many of her peers opt to volunteer with the diversion program, where they assist in providing legal services that mitigate, or stop, evictions. Jinright says her work with the diversion program has been ripe with success stories.

“That’s probably one of my favorite parts of working with PEDP, is seeing those success stories, and seeing just what a difference can be made in the community,” she said.

Faye Watson, a community liaison for the PEDP, says partners like Stetson Law provide the much-needed staffing required to keep doing this work.

“You need staff in order to work on these packets or case files in order to help these people,” she said. “Things don’t stop ticking because you’re not ready. Right? And so the key word is ready. How do we make sure that these individuals are ready.”

Even with the high success rate for tenants involved in the program, Watson sees those struggling from current and past eviction cases all the time. In one instance, she met with a woman that was having trouble securing rental assistance due to a six-year-old eviction case. The woman had three kids and was living with a relative, unable to find affordable housing that would accommodate her family.

Watson emphasized that community partnerships have been fundamental in preventing evictions ever since the program’s creation last September, when a group of organizations in Pinellas County met to think-tank solutions for the housing crisis they anticipated.

That’s when CLP implemented the diversion program, meant as a service to connect those defaulting on rent or facing eviction with funds from The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES Act).

But after the CARES money ran out, CLP members decided there was enough demand to continue the program. Now, community liaisons work under the PEDP to connect renters with free legal counsel, or other services, aimed at preventing eviction and mitigating tenant-landlord disputes. Watson says the county’s “hot” housing market is one reason there’s still a demand for these services.

“The market can demand such high rent because of people moving here,” she said. The Community Liaison added that she understands landlords’ and property managers’ desires to maximize their return on investment, and emphasized that her program assists both tenants and landlords who seek legal assistance. But her goal remains to curb evictions, which she called “a poison” for people already struggling during the pandemic and recession. 

Other groups have formed in the past year also working to support tenants facing eviction, like the St. Petersburg Tenants Union, which states its goal as spreading awareness about tenant rights. The group protests apartment complexes that consistently file evictions against residents, and points community members to the PEDP, among other resources, if needed.

Watson says as long as the PEDP maintains community partnerships and funding from the county, it will continue to help those with insecure housing throughout Pinellas.

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