The COVID grant recipients have taken on a variety of legal issues related to housing, domestic violence, education, juvenile detention and other matters impacting low-income communities and vulnerable populations. We spoke with two recipients, Nisha Kashyap (’15) and Charlotte Tsui (’16), about their projects.
Nisha Kashyap is a staff attorney at the Consumer Rights and Economic Justice Project at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, where she helps consumers address issues related to unfair business practices, predatory lending and consumer fraud in connection with mortgages, home ownership, auto lending and debt collection. As the pandemic unfolded, Nisha observed how the resulting economic devastation was affecting the low-income communities of color served by Public Counsel and applied for a FIG to support her efforts to help people maintain home ownership despite losing their jobs or other income sources. Nisha used her grant to directly represent clients at risk of foreclosure due to COVID-related financial hardship and to develop tools, including instructions, checklists, resource hubs and training seminar, for advocates and homeowners to use when engaging with mortgage servicers.
Nisha notes that such support proved vital partly because debtors’ various requirements, rules, protections and options have evolved as the pandemic has dragged on. “There is significant information asymmetry between mortgage servicers and homeowners,” Nisha says. “We help our clients bridge that knowledge gap.” In each of the cases involving a homeowner who was misinformed or misdirected about mortgage protection eligibility since the pandemic’s onset, Public Counsel secured forbearance.
Nisha also is helping clients address a potential looming crisis: As temporary mortgage protections start lifting, face a significant number of arrears. To assist a greater number of people, Nisha is creating templated requests for information that home-owners can send to their mortgage servicers to collect clear payment and reporting information. Additionally, she is presenting to housing counselors throughout California on how and when to refer homeowners to legal services organizations like Public Counsel.
“I’m energized by the possibility of using this pandemic to develop ways to narrow the stark inequities we see and give historically under-resourced communities some of what they deserve,” Nisha says.
Charlotte Tsui, a staff attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland, California, focuses primarily on cultivating opportunities for worker-led business ownership to build economic resilience in immigrant communities. Soon after shelter-in-place orders came into effect in March 2020, SELC’s email inboxes and legal clinics were inundated with questions regarding mutual aid, because the legal aid organization is one of the few in the U.S. providing transactional legal services to such organizations. As Charlotte explains, mutual aid societies, in which members exchange resources and services for each other’s benefit, have a long history in Black and other communities of color where friends and neighbors have helped fill opportunity gaps.
“Black, brown and immigrant communities were the first and hardest hit by the pandemic, and rather than wait for aid from institutions, mutual aid groups stepped in and became the first responders, delivering groceries and even covering rent,” Charlotte says.
Charlotte applied for a FIG to create an online mutual aid legal toolkit to guide the hundreds of mutual aid organizations forming across the country. It answers the most common questions Charlotte fielded in legal clinics, about issues such as establishing a charitable entity, governance, fund management and data security. The kit also provides sample forms and case studies. SELC toolkit during three online legal workshops that reached an "unprecedented” number of nonprofit leaders across the United States.
An ancillary benefit of Charlotte’s work is that it gave SELC an opportunity to collect and organize its legal research on mutual aid and create profiles of such groups. “The project enabled us to chronicle what we’ve learned and document what people at the forefront of this effort are doing,” Charlotte says.
The toolkit will remain on the SELC website after the pandemic passes and serve as a resource for new mutual aid groups that continue forming, many in response to new crises, such as the February 2021 Texas power outages. “I am hopeful the outpouring of support for mutual aid groups this past year will spur a more permanent interest in investing in local communities, especially in communities of color, where such groups have long played a vital role,” Charlotte says.