If you live below the poverty line in a metropolitan area and have a problem that requires legal action, what do you do? Usually, the answer is nothing as the legal system is complex and often expensive. In Atlanta's metro area, demand for skilled civil attorneys is high but resources are too few. That is where attorneys from private firms come in to help.
Since 1979, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer Foundation (AVLF) has been dedicated to promoting access to justice by inspiring and recruiting 14,000 private attorneys in the area to provide high-quality education, advocacy and representation at no charge to low-income families with basic civil legal needs. Its programs include services for domestic violence survivors, landlord/tenant disputes, evictions, unpaid wages and probate issues.
“Georgia Power has shown dramatic generosity to AVLF and their support for safe and stable families,” said Marty Ellin, executive director of the foundation. “They are the leading corporate sponsor in the community and we are incredibly grateful that their assistance helps us further ours.”
With the support of corporations, including the Georgia Power Foundation, AVLF has donated more than $2.25 million of free legal work to low-income clients in the community.
Recently, AVLF has been focused on its “Standing with Our Neighbors” program – a program supported by Atlanta’s leading law firms to help neighborhoods in the city stabilize and provide better living conditions for their residents.
“We know that families cannot thrive without affordable housing that is safe, stable and allows for a healthy environment,” Ellin said. “Our research has shown that children are suffering because they are living in unstable housing and deplorable conditions, which makes it difficult to be successful in school.”
To help remediate these problems, AVLF identified neighborhoods that were facing elevated levels of poverty, public health issues and below-average test scores to begin assisting in stabilizing housing. In 2016, the foundation hired a staff attorney and community advocate to become a part of one of those neighborhoods - the area surrounding Thomasville Heights Elementary School in south Atlanta, where annual enrollment had a turnover rate of 40 percent.
The AVLF staff with the support of other law firms began meeting with parents of the school's students to discuss housing issues – specifically mold in homes that the landlord wouldn’t cover and eviction notices. With the assistance of free legal help, several landlords stopped filing unnecessary evictions and began remediating mold problems. As a result, turnover at Thomasville Heights dropped 36 percent; the school now has the second highest test scores in the Atlanta area.
“You can’t fix our schools until you fix our community,” said Ellin. “Our team is proving that you can make a difference in the outcome of a child’s education and health by addressing housing instability and the needs within homes in our neighborhoods.”
The program has since expanded to eight other schools in the area, which AVLF through the help of Georgia Power and other companies hopes to make a difference.