Updated: Nov. 28, 10:30 a.m.
When Temple launched a mental health and wellness task force in February 2022, Len Rieser, the program coordinator at the Beasley School of Law’s Sheller Center for Social Justice, advocated for legal support to improve student wellness to be included in task force efforts.
“I reached out to [members of the task force] and said ‘Having heat in your apartment is also wellness, and not having to worry about where you’re going to sleep,’” Rieser said. “Counseling might be a lot less helpful than helping you get access to benefits that would enable you to have a place to sleep.”
Temple has taken additional steps to address barriers to students’ success, like creating a Food Insecurity Task Force in November, but there is still no university-sanctioned legal support for students. As Rieser has considered how these housing issues could be addressed through legal help, two of his law students have found a way to bring legal resources to campus.
Anna Manu Fineanganofo and Casey Dwyer, both second-year law students, are finalizing a semester-long project for Beasley’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic to create a student legal services program at Temple focused on providing tenants rights information.
The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic represents individuals and organizations for issues affecting low-income residents in the Philadelphia region. Clinic students provide pro bono legal representation on a range of issues, and litigate on behalf of clients in federal and state courts.
Fineanganofo and Dwyer are planning to launch the program offering legal information for housing and leasing issues in January, which will be provided by volunteer law students with a supervising attorney, in partnership with Beasley’s Housing Justice Initiative and Temple’s Cherry Pantry.
Twenty-four percent of Temple students experienced food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a March 2021 survey by the Hope Center at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. Additionally, 40 percent experienced housing insecurity, and 11 percent experienced homelessness in 2020.
Fineanganofo and Dwyer used this data and approached the project from a legal resources standpoint to address basic needs insecurity by informing students about their rights as tenants or helping eligible students access public benefits.
“One reason people don’t get legal information or legal help is because they don’t recognize that they have a legal problem,” Rieser said. “The problem presents as ‘I don’t have enough food,’ or ‘My landlord won’t fix the heat,’ but not everyone says ‘There might be a legal aspect or a legal process.’”
If Temple students need legal support, they’re referred to city organizations, like Community Legal Services and Philadelphia Legal Assistance. While Philadelphia has dozens of legal aid organizations providing free and low-cost services, they aren’t always accessible for college students.
“I was a first generation college student, so it’s really important to me that undergraduate students have access to resources.” Fineanganofo said. “If you need help looking through a lease that you’re offered, or trying to figure out if you want to sign on again another year, you can come sit with a law student and they’ll provide you information about this area which can be really confusing, like what’s legal, what’s not legal.”
BUILDING THE PROJECT
The project builds on a proposal from May 2022 by a group of Temple law students for the Access to Justice Clinic, which focuses on how to expand legal help to underrepresented communities. The proposal aimed to demonstrate the need for a student legal services program and outlines next steps for future groups to advance this effort.
At other universities, student legal resources are common. There are 50 member programs within the National Students Legal Services Inc., which aims to support student legal service offices throughout the country. Though programs can vary in structure and scope, they typically provide legal resources to students for free or at low cost, which often includes legal information and consultation, with some programs offering litigation services.
Fineanganofo and Dwyer started their project in September by researching and reaching out to some student legal services programs, mainly focusing on large state schools. They wanted to learn more about their funding mechanisms, how they became established and what students’ needs are regarding legal resources.
They were able to get in contact with offices at the University of Michigan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Virginia Tech, and found a consistent need for legal support with off-campus housing, ranging from lease review to consultation and litigation in landlord-tenant disputes. Michigan estimates that about 40 percent of their cases are landlord-tenant issues.
“Non-urban campuses like Michigan and Virginia Tech are going to have different problems to an extent, but at the same time it’s standard college problems,” Dwyer said.
Similar to Michigan, a majority of Temple students live off-campus. Eighty-six percent lived in housing that was not affiliated with the university in 2022, compared to 73 percent at Michigan.
Funding is one significant barrier to starting a program at Temple. Fineanganofo and Dwyer found that programs are typically funded through mandatory student fees – Michigan charges an additional $8.50 in tuition fees per semester for all students to cover their full-service law office.
With Temple’s tuition continuously rising in recent years due to funding challenges, Fineanganofo and Dwyer realized that any increase in costs would be a tough sell. They’ve instead focused on ways to offer legal resources by partnering with existing organizations and offices at Temple.
Fineanganofo and Dwyer are partnering with Temple’s Housing Justice Initiative, a law student organization focused on tenants’ rights education and training that started in August 2022. Law students in HJI will work with Fineanganofo and Dwyer to provide the legal information when the program starts in January.
“Housing is absolutely one of the most important areas of basic needs security, but unfortunately the area where there are, nationally, the least supports,” said Bryce McKibben, senior director of policy and advocacy at The Hope Center. “We don’t really have a large, accessible housing support public benefit program. It’s also one of the most expensive non-tuition costs that students face.”
The program is collaborating with Temple’s Cherry Pantry, which provides emergency food resources to students and referrals to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to develop the framework for a partnership between the organizations. The pantry wants to expand its offerings to include resources for housing, food, and financial security.
“I think that Anna Fineanganofo and Casey Dwyer’s efforts to bring legal resources to students is incredibly valuable and absolutely intersects with the mission of the pantry,” wrote Annette Ditolvo, the senior program manager for basic needs support in the Dean of Students’ Office, in an email to The Temple News. “Both their work and the work we do at the Cherry Pantry centers the student as a human first and works to ensure that students have their basic needs met so they are able to thrive academically.”
Alex Leone, a second-year law student and co-president of HJI, believes this will be an opportunity for law students to gain experience in housing law, she said.
“There are a lot of students who come to the law school to be housing attorneys, and we’re trying to expand the offerings that Temple has for students to learn more about it because it’s such a pressing need in the city,” Leone said.
The housing law field in Philadelphia has expanded significantly in recent years, particularly with the Right to Counsel initiative that was passed by City Council in 2019 and launched in 2022. The initiative guarantees free legal representation to eligible low-income renters facing eviction in certain zip codes, including 19121, encompassing part of Temple’s Main Campus.
“There’s going to be a lot more jobs in housing law in the next couple years.” Dwyer said. “It just makes sense for Temple to try to get housing experience for students if this is going to be a growing field in Philadelphia.”
Fineanganofo and Dwyer are focused on launching the legal information program, but want their project to be part of a long-term effort to get a more robust student legal services program on campus that provides services beyond housing resources. They hope that future law students will continue to build on their work.
“We’re trying to provide the most simple path forward to start, and then eventually expand,” Dwyer said.
An incomplete version of this story was previously uploaded. It has now been corrected.