Maryland Legal Aid helps out during hard times

December 10, 2011

Rhonda Martin listened as her attorney, Teresa Cooke, went over what she needed to do to end a harrowing housing dispute. Next to Martin was a binder filled with copies of contracts, bills and other papers documenting her troubles.

First, she faced eviction from her Prince George’s County townhouse and a lawsuit over more than $9,400 in unpaid rent, which is what sent her to Cooke in early September.

Now, having agreed to vacate her home, Martin was trying to find a place to live, which is why she was back at Cooke’s office in Riverdale looking for help.

“I’m trying not to become homeless,” she said. “I’ve never been in that situation.”

For nearly a quarter-century, Cooke has been a lawyer for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, working with people to help them keep a roof over their heads.

“We’re going to work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Cooke said of Martin’s fear of becoming homeless.

As Maryland Legal Aid celebrates its centennial this year, the national housing crisis, which has hit suburban Washington hard, is making the work it does even more vital.

At the same time, the agency, like similar organizations across the country, is grappling with funding cuts that make it harder to help the increasing number of people in need of assistance in civil cases.

For example, Prince George’s, the second-most-populous jurisdiction in the state, has endured more foreclosures than any other in Maryland. And the economic downturn has brought Legal Aid prospective clients that the organization would not have seen 10 years ago.

“I review a lot of the intakes, and we’re getting people from Potomac calling us,” Cooke said. “But these individuals are now actually financially eligible for our services.”

In most cases, a potential client must not have a household income that exceeds 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines. A four-person family would meet this year’s guidelines if it had a household income of less than $22,350 per year.

“It shows me that even the wealthiest amongst us can hit hard times suddenly,” said Cooke, whose office covers Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Housing costs across the region remain relatively high even as unemployment and other forces have made it harder for many people to afford a place to live. Rental prices in the D.C. region fell slightly between 2010 and this year, but the Center for Housing Policy continues to rank the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs among the most expensive rental markets in the nation.

“It is very expensive to live in this area,” Cooke said. “If you are working at a minimum-wage job 40 hours a week, all of your money would go to pay for a one-bedroom apartment. You’d have no more money left for food or clothing or transportation or anything like that.”

The District Court in Hyattsville handled 153,000 failure-to-pay-rent cases last year, according to court records.

“It’s huge,” she said. “And, unfortunately, people end up getting evicted, and they end up homeless.”

Battles on Capitol Hill have made Maryland Legal Aid and other groups that, like it, get money from the federally funded Legal Services Corp. frequent targets for restrictions and budget cuts.

The most recent budget battle ended Nov. 18, when President Obama signed a compromise funding bill for the 2012 fiscal year. The measure, however, cut federal funds for legal aid programs to $348 million, more than $56 million less than the previous fiscal year. That cut means Maryland Legal Aid will get $670,000 less.

Although Cooke’s office has not resorted to layoffs in response to previous funding cuts, it has instituted hiring freezes.

“That puts a tremendous strain on the staff, for one person to do the work of three,” Cooke said.

In 22 years at Maryland Legal Aid, Cooke has handled nearly every kind of case. But she prefers housing disputes because it’s an area of civil law with quick turnaround, meaning she is able to help more people over time. It also has enabled her to make her mark on state law — a 1997 case she argued before the Maryland Court of Appeals resulted in a ruling that allows judges to prevent evictions.

In Martin’s case, Cooke helped her reach a settlement to pay her landlord $1,472. In return, Martin agreed to move out of the rental where she had lived for 11 years.

At their meeting in late October, Martin was looking at properties that would accept her federal Section 8 housing voucher. Cooke told her that the weak housing market would give her more housing options.

Martin signed a lease on a rental in early November, but bureaucratic red tape is preventing her from moving in. For now, she remains in her old home while she waits for an inspector to determine that her new residence meets Section 8 guidelines.

Martin said she is grateful for the work Cooke and her colleagues at Maryland Legal Aid did on her behalf.

“She turned a nightmare into a blessing,” Martin said.

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