Words by Leticia Romero

If you were in Texas during the catastrophic winter storm of 2021, what many referred to as Snowvid, you may have experienced the turmoil of what it was like to live without running water.

For homeowner Lisa Woods, that upheaval continued over the next two years, and she’s still living without running water. A simple house title stood between her and much-needed home repairs. This unclear title passage is called a clouded or tangled title in the legal community.

At the advice of a friend, Woods called the St. Mary’s University School of Law in hopes of getting legal help she couldn’t afford otherwise. Clearing titles and postponing or avoiding evictions, among other legal housing battles, are the primary focus of the St. Mary’s Law students, staff attorneys and faculty in the Consumer Protection Clinic and the Real Estate Clinic, the latter of which started in Fall 2023.

“There is a very thin line between housing and homelessness,” said Greg Zlotnick, J.D., who serves as both a Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor and Supervising Attorney for the Housing Rights Project at St. Mary’s Law. “For many students, being able to serve their community and make a difference in this way is one of the major reasons why they came to law school.”

St. Mary’s Law operates five clinical programs, all housed in the Center for Legal and Social Justice building. Law students are eligible to enroll beginning in their second year. Third-year J.D. student Katherine Chevalier of San Antonio said her confidence has grown through her clinical work. “At St. Mary’s, you’re surrounded by amazing people,” Chevalier said. “I could never imagine myself talking before a judge. I didn’t think I had that in me. But being able to advocate for someone else who doesn’t have a voice, who doesn’t know how to bring their case before a judge, really changed that for me.”

Third-year J.D. students Larissa Jackson and Katherine Chevalier work on a case with Greg Zlotnick at the Center for Legal Social Justice.

Consumer Protection Clinic

One of the concerns of local and federal governments during the COVID-19 pandemic was that a massive unemployment spike would lead to, in Zlotnick’s words, “an eviction tsunami,” leaving many people homeless.

Help is in great demand. For instance, the hotline received nearly 1,300 voicemails in 2022. Some calls were general inquiries or return calls, but the majority were tenants facing a housing crisis. School of Law Paralegal Rita Arce is the first to screen the calls. Arce got emotional when describing the distress of some of the callers. “You hear them pleading with you on the phone,” Arce said. “A lot of people just fell on hard times, and now they have a job and are catching up with the bills, and they have kids.”

Rising to the need in Spring 2020, Genevieve Hébert Fajardo, J.D., Clinical Professor of Law, spearheaded the creation of the Consumer Protection Clinic’s Housing Hotline with support from Zlotnick and the Pro Bono Program team. The operation features a call-back hotline at which tenants facing evictions and other real estate-related problems can leave a message.

Arce then makes the tough decision to refer callers elsewhere or route them for a 30-to-45-minute consultation with student attorneys under the supervision of staff lawyers. Clinic students conduct interviews, research a course of action, get approval from their supervising attorney and relay next steps.

In August 2021, the St. Mary’s School of Law was one of 99 law schools that responded to the U.S. Attorney General’s call to action to address the housing and eviction crisis. At a 2022 White House virtual convening, St. Mary’s Law, along with the other schools, was recognized as a law school committed to meaningful action toward expanding access to justice and increasing housing stability, through initiatives like the Housing Hotline. The Consumer Protection Clinic also wrapped up 332 matters related to tenants’ rights and eviction prevention in 2022. This included advice, referral, information provided on the hotline and direct representation in courtroom proceedings.

Third-year J.D. student Larissa Jackson of Queens, New York, is in her second year of clinic work and said this experience is laying a solid foundation for her legal career. “One thing that I love about the clinic is that they don’t just say, ‘Yes, you should do this,’ or ‘No, you need to do this,’” Jackson said. “Faculty work with you to use the information you’ve learned through the class part of clinic and think through what would be the best outcome in this scenario for this client.”

As of January 2024, Lisa Wood’s home is in the process of being updated.

The Eviction Crisis and Government Funding

According to the nonprofit Texas Housers, there were 17,900 evictions filed in Bexar County in 2022 — an average of 49 filed per day, with 76% of cases won by the landlord. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave the City of San Antonio an eviction protection grant of $2.4 million to expand tenants’ access to legal representation. The City allocated $690,000 of the grant to the St. Mary’s Consumer Protection Clinic to support the School of Law in its eviction protection work.

Along with St. Mary’s Law, other sub-recipients of the funding included Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) and San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA). St. Mary’s and TRLA receive grant funding from HUD’s Eviction Protection Grant Program, while SALSA and TRLA receive grant funding from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to provide eviction prevention legal services. Representatives from the four entities frequently collaborate.

Kristen Adams (J.D. ’18), attorney for SALSA, said there are many misconceptions about tenants facing eviction. “I don’t think I ever met a tenant who didn’t want to pay their rent,” Adams said. “I can tell you the type of horrors I’ve heard are kind of a Sophie’s Choice as far as, ‘Am I going to pay rent?’ or ‘Am I going to bury my son?’”

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Lizbeth Parra Davila (J.D. ’19) said evictions can trigger a tremendous downward spiral for tenants — from preventing them from finding new housing, which could lead to homelessness or general housing instability — which is especially detrimental to households with children. “When one brick falls, all the others fall as well,” Davila said.

Real Estate Clinic

While its recent focus has been eviction prevention, historically, the Consumer Protection Clinic handles a range of consumer-related issues, from deceptive trade practices to other consumer-related matters like homeowner Lisa Woods’ clouded title. Fajardo created the Real Estate Clinic as a standalone transactional clinic. “When you don’t have the title to a home, you can’t use the equity that you have in the home. You can’t get repairs. You can’t sell it,” Fajardo said. “Often in San Antonio, it’s someone’s primary asset. Their only form of wealth is in their home.”

The Real Estate Clinic works as a legal mechanism to try to get a clear title to their homes. They help with property taxes and exemptions, if there’s a threat of foreclosure, and with basic estate planning for clients, particularly if they had a tangled title in the past.

Woods was impressed by Fajardo and her team’s thoroughness as they dove into her family line to get the signatures needed to clear up her title. The St. Mary’s Law team has worked on this case for more than 100 days. “It was pretty awesome the way they helped me out and got things taken care of,” Woods said. “It took a while with me because there are so many family members who I had to go through.”

Jessica Henry (J.D. ’23), attorney at Porter, Rogers, Dahlman and Gordon, P.C., said learning from Fajardo provided invaluable training. “Professor Fajardo ended up getting Ancestry.com for us because we have these big, convoluted family trees to work with,” Henry said. “We’re digging through obituaries and looking for property records. It was just a lot of title research and genealogy. I learned so much.”

San Antonio resident Bernadette Vasquez used the Housing Hotline after her landlord was trying to change the contract for a deed she already signed. Vasquez said the St. Mary’s Law students were kind and helped her resolve the situation. “I’m very happy that the students are there to help people like me who don’t have the resources to contract a lawyer,” Vasquez said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I’m glad they took the chance to help me out with my situation.”

Lisa Wood’s, pictured right, will be able to get much needed repairs to her home now that the property title is in her name, thanks to Genevieve Hébert Fajardo, J.D., pictured left, and the St. Mary’s Law Real Estate Clinic team.

Know Your Rights

The clinical work extends beyond legal representation into educating the community about tenant rights through resource tables at public libraries, the Justice of the Peace courts around Bexar County and local nonprofits.

Law students Chevalier and Jackson wanted to expand these efforts. They collaborated with San Antonio Independent School District’s social workers for homeless youths, providing them with tenant rights information packets. The St. Mary’s Law clinic students also presented to Jefferson High School’s Graduation Club, a group that prepares students for life after high school. “A lot of them are going to be tenants themselves once they’re out of high school,” Jackson said. “This is stuff that I would have liked to have known as a young adult.”

The Real Estate and Consumer Protection Clinics’ work would not be possible without the unsung heroes of the clinic faculty, administration and staff. “I’m the biggest cheerleader for the clinic,” Henry said. “St. Mary’s Law has some of the best teachers I’ve ever had. They changed the game for me. It went from feeling like school to feeling like I had a purpose.”

Rebuilding Brick by Brick

With the help of the St. Mary’s Law clinic team, Woods is on the path to getting her much-needed home repairs and running water. Woods said the title had been held up by two family members who had refused to sign the title papers. It was Fajardo who finally got a judge to sign off on the title by showing the family members had not paid any taxes or made any contributions to the property. “Thank God, the judge agreed, and now I have the house in my name,” Woods said.