GREAT BARRINGTON — Endless piles of paperwork.
Hardly an image that rings with joy.
When you're buying or selling a home, or refinancing, you get buried under a pile of legal documents.
Eve Schatz, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Berkshire Center for Justice, wants you to know that, if you do your next real estate transaction with the center, you get a shot at feeling good while "signing here, here, here and here."
That's because your property transfer fee will help subsidize pro bono legal work it performs daily for the region's most vulnerable residents; about 25 percent of her clients live below the poverty level and about 75 percent are low income, Schatz says.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a major increase in demand for center services; normally, the center oversees about 250 cases a year, but this year has been deluged with requests for legal help.
Increase in demand for services
"Our intakes have doubled this year because of the need for services. One month tripled from our normal pre-COVID-19 intakes, because so many people in the Berkshires are affected by COVID-related issues," says Schatz. "There are a lot of people hurting now, and they're coming to us."
The center is best known for legal aid and referrals in matters of divorce, debt, bankruptcy and other related matters, but Schatz also represents middle- and high-income Berkshirites who want to see their closing costs go to a good cause.
"We are receiving all kinds of calls, all COVID-related, and hiring us for your real estate transaction needs will really help the community. It's a good deed. It helps repair the world, when your fee goes to help those less fortunate than you," says Schatz. "In addition to expert real estate service, they can have the good feeling knowing that the fee subsidizes our free legal clinics and our pro bono clients."
Pro bono work doesn't apply to all clients, notes Schatz, and is reserved for those with the greatest financial need.
Unemployment in the Berkshires is now around 15 percent, Schatz says. "That means more people are requiring free legal clinics and pro bono services," says Schatz, and the center requires additional financial support to cover the costs.
Landlord, tenant disputes
Another primary need that the center fills is representing landlords and tenants in legal disputes; problems have been created by the pandemic, as each party struggles with the other over unpaid rent and a state-mandated moratorium on evictions during the pandemic.
In a recent case, an elderly man was being victimized by his landlord for allegedly turning off and on the utilities in his rental unit.
"The landlord turned off the electricity, the hot water and cold water, among other terrible things, and they did this during the moratorium, and during a heatwave, and during the pandemic," says Schatz. "He can't get a drink of water; he can't flush the toilet; he can't have hot water to clean the premises and his body during the coronavirus; he couldn't plug in an air conditioner."
The center filed an emergency restraining order against the landlord, and came to an agreement where the utilities and services would be turned on and left on for the remainder of the tenancy, says Schatz.
"This was an effort to spur 'constructive eviction,' driving someone to move out," says Schatz.
In an eviction that follows the law, there are procedures that define the process, and everyone has to abide by them; a "constructive eviction would mean you're basically evicting them not through legal means, but through your actions," explains Schatz.
Another center client had a landlord who served an eviction notice during the COVID-19 moratorium.
They should know better
"It is a completely improper action. Whether the landlord is aware or not, it's improper. It would be hard to imagine that landlord would not be aware of it, but maybe somewhere a landlord thinks, 'Hey, maybe this will work, maybe I should I try it out.'"
Landlords should know that they're treading on thin ice with that kind of action, she says.
In a case in which she's assisting a landlord, her client's tenants bounced their initial check for first month's rent, but not until after they moved in.
"Now, they're in, and there's a moratorium, and they never paid a cent," says Schatz.
What's worse is that it's a rented bedroom in a primary residence, meaning a shared kitchen, shared living space, shared everything, says Schatz.
"Living for free, eating her food, not moving out. The landlord is defaulting on her mortgage because the tenants aren't paying. Her bank isn't working with her, despite all the publicity that banks will work with you during the pandemic. How do you even keep your sanity?"
When work says yes, but doc says no
There have been other coronavirus problems that have spurred legal action by the center, such as when health and safety is at odds with employment. One client was told to return to work after a COVID-19 diagnosis, against a doctor's orders.
Other situations are more volatile, such as domestic problems that are amplified by the pandemic. "If the family doesn't get along and they're quarantined together, that's not good news," says Schatz.
Some clients are in debt because of the virus, with reduced hours or job loss, or failure to successfully negotiate the state's unemployment insurance application, and bankruptcy looms.
"People are using credit cards to pay food, rent, for their car, but have insufficient means to pay them back. If you have no income, and you're charging on your credit card, it's a losing battle. Even if you pay the minimum, the amount of interest quickly increases the amount of debt, and it becomes impossible to pay off. In Massachusetts, the credit card companies can increase the rate to 32 percent. Every month, you're paying interest on the interest on the interest," notes Schatz.
The center helps with Chapter 7 bankruptcy petitions and when people are summoned to court.
"An elderly person was in the hospital and got sued by her credit card company for nonpayment. I was able to successfully get that case dismissed. She didn't have to go to court, and she didn't have to pay the debt," says Schatz.
No legal justice means no justice
Schatz says there is no justice unless there's legal justice.
"It's access to legal services that creates justice. If you look at racial tension, economic tension, all of these issues, if you're not treated equally in the justice system, there is no justice," says Schatz. "People need equal access to lawyers, and they need to be treated equally by the DA's office, the police department, everywhere, all the branches of government."
If the laws are discriminatory, they need to be changed, says Schatz, and people need access to attorneys to enforce laws of equality.
"People of different races are not being treated the same as white people," notes Schatz. "We're open and available to people of color, and you will be treated with respect. We believe you, and you have our full attention."
Incidentally, the center has been working pro bono for a biracial man who has not been treated justly in the legal system or the medical system for two years.
"To help make it right, we decided to use our limited resources to be able to take this on pro bono for two years," says Schatz. "The more resources available to the Berkshire Center for Justice, the more of these injustices we'll be able to take on."
Support needed for continued efforts
The center welcomes philanthropic donations for those Berkshire residents who want to help advocate for social justice and for helping people beset with poverty.
"There's plenty to do. Being a front-line service provider in the Berkshires, we hear it, we see it, we know it," says Schatz. "Those who are able to pay a $75 intake fee, those who make $30,000 or above, we're extremely grateful because it subsidizes the cost of pro bono services, and we need to keep our office open."
The center's office is at 284 Main St. in Great Barrington, but is not open to the public. All intakes are to be conducted via its website intake application or by telephone.
For legal help or to ask about philanthropic donations to help pay for the center's essential social justice work, call 413-854-1955 or visit berkshirecenterforjustice.org.