Nick Smithberg Has the Floor

Iowa Legal Aid Executive Director Answers Questions about Eviction Prevention

Nick Smithberg Has the Floor

What does it look like to help landlords see evictions as “problems we can solve, rather than eviction cases to close,”create a new model that serves as a best practice throughout the state, and share it all with you and more in a 20-question, fast-paced discussion with Iowa Legal Aid’s leader, Nick Smithberg? Let’s find out.

Q1: Iowa Legal Aid is a partner in the eviction prevention program with the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. How significant is the issue?  
We’ve seen a 200 percent increase in eviction cases from last year. There are many families and individuals who have become newly unemployed and newly qualified for our services. We’re seeing residents from throughout Polk County, for example Urbandale, Grimes, Altoona, Ankeny, Pleasant Hill, West Des Moines, and Des Moines.

Q2: How did this initiative come about?
True story, I was sitting innocently in my home office on a Friday afternoon when the phone rang and on the end of the line came, “Hi I’m calling from Polk County Board of Supervisors. Do you have a minute to talk? Let me put you on speaker phone.” I found myself speaking with Angela Connolly and Matt McCoy in real time.

They cut to the chase on the need to do something quickly to reduce evictions and I explained that we were trying to get a presence at the Justice Center to stem off this surge of eviction cases. We were cleared in just two days. Suffice it to say, Angela Connolly is a very persuasive person.

Q3: What else contributed to how quickly the program was up and running?
The key to speed was how Polk County’s $800,000 in funding was put in rental assistance with the Polk County Housing Trust Fund serving as the administrator. Together, on site, we immediately went to work brokering deals and making payments to landlords to keep people in their homes.  

Q4: Results to date?
In just four months we’ve had over 500 cases dismissed. That includes more than 1,000 adults and 500 children we’ve kept in their homes during an Iowa winter and pandemic. In many cases, we have been able to prevent evictions without using funds from Polk County. That’s pretty special for us.

Q5: What do you say to renters facing eviction?
I know the prospect of going to the courthouse can be intimidating, overwhelming or even demoralizing, but show up. That’s what we say. You are going to lose 100 percent of cases that you don’t show up for. In many cases, even if we can’t provide legal representation, we can provide legal advice that makes all the difference and connects them with other benefits and supportive services.

Q6: Besides funding, what else is important?
The lifeblood is the immediacy of the service and that we are at the court where the eviction notices take place. That is critically important. Some days at the court there are 150-200 cases on the docket and the last thing we’d want is a protracted application process. This is battlefield medicine, and we are in effect administering a certain triage — immediately.

Q7: How does having good partners come into play?
After years of working in the legal industry, this is why I prefer working in nonprofits. We’re not competitive; it’s not Coke versus Pepsi. We’re all looking for same results.
Yes, there are many stand-alone tenant rental assistance programs and separate tenant legal support, but what we are providing together in Polk County is unique and highly efficacious. This is exactly the kind of human services collaboration needed, now more than ever.

Q8: Would you call this a best practice?
Absolutely. I can tell you this eviction prevention initiative in Polk County has gained some attention in other parts of the state from those who are interested in replicating the efforts. In fact, we just got the green light in Black Hawk County to launch this initiative, as well as a few other places.

Q9: As you look to replicate this program, what is needed to make others as effective?
The efficacy comes from being on site, with legal advice and the financial resources. When there’s money you can cut a deal — it’s like it puts our efficacy on steroids. We have legal support for the tenants and a checkbook at the table next door for the landlords owed back rent. 

Q10: Speaking of landlords, how are things going with them?
We are hopefully effectuating a paradigm shift of getting landlords to look at these as problems we can solve, rather than eviction cases to close. It’s all about resources. Many landlords are struggling too, especially the smaller ones. We’re not blind to that and they certainly don’t want a vacancy, especially during a pandemic.

Q11: It sounds like pretty intense work, how are you and your staff holding up?
I believe that when we look at this as the humanitarian crisis it is, my staff, our partners and others who made our work possible will say this was one of our finest hours. My staff is incredibly engaged in this project. This is what we’re here for, it’s what we do.

Q12: Future funding?
We recognize this funding is not forever, and you know that’s scary given 2021 will be a particularly tough year — especially in the first quarter. It is our hope and our intent to continue our eviction prevention operations at the Justice Center even after rental assistance funds are no longer available. Our intervention will be even more important at that time. Thankfully, companies and people are sending checks of support. It’s a good investment and a good example of how we can invest now or pay much more later. We commissioned an economic impact study with Iowa State University a couple years ago to quantify the economic benefit of funding legal services like ours. A key finding was that for every dollar in funding support in Iowa, there was an economic output of a 430 percent rate of return.

Q13: This initiative may help in the short term, but what about long term?
We view the threat of eviction as a symptom of other problems. When someone falls behind on rent there’s often a reason, such as employment issues, childcare, transportation, domestic violence and other barriers to employment. Our interventions help tenants gain access resources and become safe, stable and employable. It’s very much in a landlord’s interest to have us intervene and help their tenant gain access to unemployment benefits, social security income, help with utilities, wrap around services, disability income or child support.

And just to be clear, in about a quarter of the cases there is domestic violence. As you’d expect, it presents a tremendous barrier on so many fronts and impacts job stability the well-being of children — even before COVID-19, which is especially impacting working mothers. This is our sweet spot, so to speak. Iowa Legal Aid is especially well suited to help women by providing legal guidance, benefits and access to resources.

Q14: Switching gears, how did you find your way from New York to Iowa?
After law school, I worked at a legal services nonprofit for a while, then moved to the private sector. During my years with “Big Law” I did some work in the insurance sector which included visits here. Then I moved from private practice to working for the City of New York where I ran a unit that helped low-income workers with workplace issues. That experience rekindled my passion for public interest work and three years ago when I saw the opportunity to lead Iowa Legal Aid, I thought Wow, this is exactly what I want and need to do next!

Q15: Do you miss the big city amenities?
New York City was great, but we’d go to a Broadway show maybe once a year and we can still do that. Okay, maybe not now, but perhaps when the pandemic is under control. And for what my wife and I value, Iowa provides a wonderful quality of life and the kind of education we want for our two boys who go Roosevelt High School.

Q16:  Insights as an Iowa transplant?
The business community here is very attuned to their opportunity to help make this a great place for employees. There’s also something to be said for the size of communities in Iowa and how big problems can feel more manageable. And personally, it’s incredibly rewarding to actually see the impact of your work. I also appreciate that even if we have not served someone directly, chances are they know someone Iowa Legal Aid has helped. It’s often just one degree of separation, rather than six.

Q17: Greatest hope?
That we rise to the challenge and at the end of 2021 we will be stronger than we’ve ever been. In that regard I feel like this could be our finest hour and my greatest hope is that out of this horrible situation we make positive, lasting changes.  

Q18: Greatest fear?
One fear is that in 2021 we see a steep decrease in funding at the same time of an even greater need. We’re not even close to done with the evictions and there are hundreds and hundreds behind on rent. They’re not being called to eviction court yet, but they will be in the pipeline soon.

Q19: Are you able to do more?
We are fully prepared to do more; our only limitation is on the resource front. We have the expertise and passion; this is our purpose as an organization. As I said earlier and I think it bears repeating, we are in a humanitarian crisis. We want to do more and ensure we can say that when it came to serving those in need, this was our finest hour.

Q20: We’re at question 20, last one - anything missed that’s important to you?
I’m incredibly grateful for that Friday afternoon call from the Polk County Supervisors. They put into motion one of the most rewarding, effective and important collaborations I have ever been part of. The Polk County Housing Trust Fund — Eric, his staff and the board of directors, as well as the Polk County Continuum of Care, have been extraordinary on all fronts.

And as we finish this Zoom discussion from the isolation of my house, I am thankful to have met, albeit virtually, more people in the last year than I have in my lifetime. For many, our organizations are the last line of defense for people in desperate straits, and I feel more certain than ever that as bad as things are, or become, we can make a difference.