Exploring how lawyers can help revitalize neighborhoods

Guests from a St. Louis collaboration discuss Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s (LSEM) Neighborhood Advocacy Program on the latest episode of Legal Services Corporation's “Talk Justice” podcast, released May 28.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC) President Ron Flagg hosts the conversation with Dan Glazier, executive director of LSEM, Peter Hoffman, managing attorney of the Neighborhood Advocacy Program, and Tonnie Glispie-Smith, St. Louis City West End Neighborhood Leader and Neighborhood Advocacy AmeriCorps VISTA member.  

There are 24,000 vacancies and abandoned properties in St. Louis.

LSEM was inspired by Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s Adopt-a-Neighborhood program in Kansas City to start their own revitalization project.

In 2018 they launched the Neighborhood Advocacy Program — which was first called the Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative — to start tackling the legal problems that create lingering neighborhood blight.  

“Most legal services [focus] on providing direct services to individual clients on specific legal matters, but what happens to our clients when they go home? What is their day-to-day life like?” said Hoffman. “Is there safe and secure housing? Are they worried about what's going to happen in the building next to them?”  

“All of these things are—it might be hard for people to see—but these are legal problems,” Hoffman continued. “The overgrown weeds or the trash or the sagging gutters or the broken windows, there is this physical blight, but what people don't often see is underlying that is this legal blight.”  

Hoffman explained that various legal issues can be tied to abandoned buildings such as the owner has died without preparing a title or estate planning, or a shell company in another state or country has ownership of the property, or there is a lean on the property from a lender who has gone out of business.

Untangling these titles requires legal work, so lawyers play an enormous role in getting vacant properties back to productive use in communities, Hoffman said.  

Community and pro bono partnerships are key to the program. LSEM has received two LSC Pro Bono Innovation Fund grants which Glazier says have helped them grow the program and engage private law firms in the community to sponsor a neighborhood.  

The pro bono lawyers primarily focus on three different types of services. First, when a family member dies and legal hurdles are preventing family beneficiaries from taking over the title, lawyers are able to help.

They also work to prevent this problem by assisting with estate planning. Second, a state law allows neighborhood associations to sue the owners of abandoned, neglected properties to force the sale, transfer or improvement of the property, so the pro bono lawyer will represent the neighborhood association. Third, the lawyers participate in community meetings and provide education and technical assistance on matters like land titles and tax foreclosure.  

“Purposefully going into a community with the intent to work with — not just for, but with the community is an important strategy. Community lawyering is, we think, a vital part of what we do at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and what is most effective to connect with those we serve,” Glazier said. “One of the key elements of that kind of work is trust and being in that community and being there at the neighborhood meetings, being there…when things pop up that you don't expect: that builds trust.”  

The program has empowered community members to play an active part in making lasting improvements to their neighborhoods by leveraging legal help.  

“Some of the conversations that I've had with owners or realtors that don't think that we can do anything about [property abandonment]—it's a good feeling to say, ‘yes, we can. Here are these laws that you should read up on,’ and they'll say, ‘well, I have a lawyer,’” said Glispie-Smith. “It's really good to say, ‘we have a lawyer, too.’”  

She said that she appreciates the holistic approach that the Neighborhood Advocacy Program takes, pairing the litigation aspects of the work with crucial education for the community about how to make sure their paperwork is in order so that their property stays with their families.

“Talk Justice” episodes are available online and on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple and other popular podcast apps. The podcast is sponsored by LSC’s Leaders Council.???

LSC is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974. For 50 years, LSC has provided financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. For additional information, visit www.lsc.gov.

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