Law students lend help to local renter hotline

Staffed by law students, Home Line gives legal advice to renters.
HOME Line housing attorney Matt Eichenlaub talks to a renter on the phone on Friday at their Minneapolis office. HOME Line is a nonprofit that provides free legal, organizing, educational and advocacy services for tenants in Minnesota and now have the resources to help Minneapolis tenants beginning April 1.
April 07, 2014

Minneapolis renters can now get free legal advice with help from University of Minnesota law students.

Home Line, a call service offering legal advice to tenants, made its services free in Minneapolis on Tuesday, and it will work with University legal services to help renters. The program fills a gap in the city’s housing services and gives law students experience outside of the classroom.

Second-year law student Kent Dolphay, who volunteers at the center, said the new program is a relief because the city has a high demand for the service. Before the free extension, some tenants weren’t helped, he said.

Law students from the metro make up most of Home Line’s 75 to 100 volunteers. The program also offers students a chance to learn about housing legalities, he said, which he wouldn’t typically deal with in law school.

“You’re actually helping people,” he said.

Home Line, which operates throughout the state, usually gets about 11,000 or 12,000 calls each year, said Mike Vraa, Home Line’s managing attorney, and the change in Minneapolis will add 3,000 or 5,000 more.

On Wednesday afternoon, Home Line had received 28 calls from Minneapolis residents.

Some of the recurring issues for student tenants include ends of lease, security deposit issues and poor housing conditions, said University Student Legal Service  attorney Bill Dane, adding that the main issues shift over time.

University and Home Line leaders met last month to discuss the partnership. Dane said Home Line employees and volunteers will tell student callers that they should seek help with USLS because it can offer more comprehensive services.

The University’s legal services help students who need legal advice or representation in court, Dane said, but it’s only available to those who pay student service fees.,

USLS will refer students to Home Line if they don’t pay the fees because they’re under the credit threshold. Also, some graduate students don’t pay and could benefit from the helpline, Dane said.

“The door swings both ways,” he said, adding that Home Line’s expansion into Minneapolis is necessary. “I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

The city previously provided funding for a tenant help program, but cut off the funding at the end of 2012 . Now, through state funds and other sources, Home Line will play that role for the city, Vraa said.

The city closed off spending on its housing service to save money, said Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon, who represents neighborhoods around the University. Home Line might be able to serve as an advocate for renters, if the city was considering a change in policy, he said.

Currently, Dane said, the slow economy has led to many security deposit concerns from tenants. When landlords are short on cash, he said, they sometimes charge for damages they would otherwise overlook.

Vraa said during the winter months, the majority of calls revolve around needing house repairs.

Dolphay said he felt bad whenever a Minneapolis caller was turned away under the old program because the renter could be under extreme circumstances, like potentially losing a home.

“I’m really happy that they can call in now,” Dolphay said.

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