“People often think that housing problems don’t exist in the suburbs,” says Nareen Kim, Director of Housing Law Practice at North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic. “But the housing landscape has changed.”
Suburban renters include families and individuals who are low-income, Kim says, “and they are facing landlords who do not provide decent, habitable housing.” In addition, COVID-19 has only further exposed problems—such as a lack of affordable housing—that already existed for low-income renters.
North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic provides free legal help in the areas of housing, domestic violence, and immigration to residents of north suburban Cook County and Lake County. Founded in 2015 and originally known as Highland Park-Highwood Legal Aid Clinic, the organization quickly grew to meet the need for legal aid services in areas outside of those two cities.
During its first year, the Clinic had a part-time executive director and a total of 70 cases. Now, its staff of 25 has served more than 1,200 clients within the past year alone. In 2019, its name changed to North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic to better reflect the new geographic reach and services provided by the organization.
In Summer 2020, the Clinic introduced their Housing Practice in response to the needs of renters in the suburbs during the housing crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every client I’ve talked to in some way has had their income affected by COVID-19,” says Staff Attorney Jenny Terrell, who joined the Clinic in the midst of the pandemic. She emphasized the need for recognition of the national housing crisis going on.
“The existence of these rental assistance programs actually creates some hope for these tenants who otherwise wouldn’t have any way to get money together to pay the back rent they owe,” says Terrell.
In addition to actively providing direct legal services and aid to those that the organization serves, the Clinic also focuses quite a bit on community outreach. The Clinic holds Know-Your-Rights presentations for tenants—particularly for Spanish–speaking undocumented clients—and connects clients with housing counselors who can assist them in accessing affordable housing.
In the future, the Clinic hopes to expand its advocacy efforts, meeting with local legislators to help them understand the legal issues that the organization’s clients face. Kim says, “Advocacy is obviously a huge piece in creating positive change to better the lives of our clients.”