Reaching Beyond the Matter at Hand

April 19, 2016

Mary Ann Blakemore’s home was firebombed by her daughter’s boyfriend in a brutal attack that not only destroyed the elderly woman’s public housing apartment and nearly all her possessions, but left her hospitalized with third-degree burns. Housing Authority of Cook County (HACC) officials so dragged their feet in securing her a new apartment, that Mary Ann had no home once she was finally released from the rehabilitation center many months later. Fortunately, Mary Ann sought help from a fierce advocate the dedicated attorneys in LAF’s Housing Unit.

In March, nearly a year later, the case settled with Blakemore receiving a new apartment and financial aid to help replace her belongings. Moreover, HACC agreed to retrain its employees on fair housing law, including protections for domestic violence victims and residents with disabilities.

The legal victory is one of several that have made headlines recently for effecting both significant individual impact and a lasting impact on housing law in Chicago.

The case brought together our expertise in housing and protecting victims of domestic violence, said LAF Director of Advocacy Richard Wheelock. Here, where a case cuts across more than one substantive area of law, that’s where LAF demonstrates its unique strength.

LAF photo

Formerly known as the Legal Assistance Foundation, LAF is the largest provider of free civil legal services in Chicago, and one of the many outstanding legal aid organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign. LAF helped more than 40,000 people in 2014, thanks to more than 140 staff members and hundreds of pro bono attorneys and volunteers.

This year, it celebrates a monumental 50th anniversary of providing free legal services to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the community.

In 2011, LAF consolidated several general practice neighborhood offices scattered around Cook County into a central downtown office and five specialized practice groups: Children & Families, Consumer, Housing, Immigrant & Workers’ Rights, and Public Benefits. Not wanting to lose its presence in the neighborhoods, LAF created a Community Engagement Unit that focuses on maintaining and developing new partnerships with nonprofits and community organizations in Chicago and suburban Cook County.

We need our ear to the ground to see what’s happening at the community level and respond to the community needs, said Richard.

We are on the lookout for cases that will make a difference not only for clients, but for many others, and to improve the system itself.
Examples of these collaborations include CLASP (Comprehensive Legal Assistance for Survivors Project) with YWCA Evanston/North Shore and Pillars, and ADAPT, a senior-focused project with the Center for Disability and Elder Law and Illinois Legal Aid Online. LAF also maintains a number of help desks and community clinics with the help of law firms and other volunteers, which also receive key support from the CBF thanks to your contributions to the Campaign.

LAF most recently launched the Health Justice Project, a medical-legal partnership with Loyola University and the Erie Family Health Center. A medical-legal partnership identifies social factors that impact a patient’s health and can often be improved through legal remedies. Three to four more medical-legal partnerships are currently in varying stages of development at LAF.

LAF celebrated another huge victory for fair housing recently when it settled a case against the Chicago Housing Authority. When the CHA did not follow through on its promise to maintain the Francis Cabrini Rowhouses as 100 percent public housing, LAF and Sidley Austin sued on behalf of Chicago tenants. CHA agreed to preserve at least 40 percent of the units for public housing in the rowhouses, and to create an additional 1,800 units of low-income housing on the Near North Side.

LAF has long been dedicated to cases that impact large groups of people, even after Congress set restrictions prohibiting legal service programs that receive federal funding from pursuing class action cases back in 1996.

We’ve been able to find the big cases and make a big impact with our hands tied behind our backs, so to speak, said Cynthia Sadkin, LAF’s director of client and community services.

LAF has also been on the pulse in responding to emerging legal issues. The rollout of Obamacare prompted a great deal of work within public benefits and signing people up for the expanded Medicaid. Following the Great Recession, LAF was a key figure in foreclosure defense work. Considered one of the early experts of rescue fraud, the organization has helped shut down foreclosure frauds such as Mark Diamond’s reverse mortgage scheme.

Cynthia adds, We are on the lookout for cases that will make a difference not only for clients, but for many others, and to improve the system itself.