Even before the pandemic, Nebraska legal scholar Ryan Sullivan knew the system was broken.
When eviction hearings continued despite calls to isolate at home, he drove to the courthouse to see what he could do. Sullivan saved seven struggling families from immediate eviction that day. Then he kept showing up.
“Evictions are always bad for society,” he said. “But it’s even worse when they exacerbate a pandemic.”
Sullivan’s one-man operation quickly evolved into the Tenant Assistance Project, a successful low-cost legal program recognized by the White House as a national model.
Launched in April 2020, TAP provides free legal representation to low-income families facing eviction in Nebraska’s two most populous counties. Sullivan received the Association of American Law Schools Access to Justice Award for founding TAP and for his other public interest work.
He’s been researching Nebraska housing law and evictions for years.
“In Nebraska, we have a system that incentivizes eviction over working things out,” Sullivan said. “Eviction court has become factory-like, churning out hundreds of evictions each week across Nebraska.”
Even when the law is on the tenant’s side, outcomes historically favor landlords because they have lawyers, he explained. He was developing a program to send students to court several times a year to shake things up when the pandemic accelerated and expanded his vision.
With a 98% success rate, TAP has helped more than 2,000 families avoid immediate eviction. As landlords adjust to the new reality, fewer families end up in eviction court.
The White House featured TAP in a push to curb evictions during the pandemic. The volunteer-run program costs a fraction of other states’ programs. More than half of the volunteers are Husker law students. The Nebraska Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project now facilitates the program.
Sullivan supervises law students in court, who gain valuable experience and an intimate view of poverty. He’ll soon share those duties with two full-time fellows in the College of Law’s new Housing Justice Clinic, established as a result of TAP’s success.
“I’m excited for these energized and capable fellows to take this grassroots project and make it something special,” said Sullivan, clinical associate professor of law.
Nebraska news release: White House, Attorney General recognize Nebraska Law’s Tenant Assistance Project
Nebraska news release: Sullivan receives Association of American Law Schools Access to Justice Award
Media mention: Nebraska law professor wins national award for pro bono program (Lincoln Journal Star, 1/11/2022)
Media mention: Tenant Assistance Project adds resource to prevent evictions long-term (KOLN, 7/14/2022)
Media mention: NU College of Law Tenant Assistance Project expands (KOLN, 9/21/22)
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