A week after the last flash flood in St. Louis, a line of people seeking free legal advice wrapped around the corner of the Friendly Temple entrance on Aug. 11.
Volunteer attorneys from the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri were there to help clients who either paid a month-to-month lease under a landlord with questionable maintenance practices or had attempted a failed pro se case.
Jeannie Brandstetter, the director of communications for MATA, said they were the worst natural disaster cases she’s seen in her career.
“Even during the aftermath of the (2011 Joplin) tornado, I’ve never seen what I saw in University City,” she said.
Brandstetter relayed the case of a tenant who had signed a lease that claimed no matter what the landlord did, they could not take legal action, even if the landlord murdered them. After flooding wiped out the property’s electricity and was otherwise unlivable, the landlord is forcing the tenant to pay rent.
David Knieriem, a volunteer who also is a St. Louis landlord, consulted with Brandstetter about the tenant’s options via email. He recommended a city inspector review the damage, though the lack of electricity was damning enough.
“Since it has now been a couple of weeks I don’t see how there is a reasonable argument that this is being done in any kind of reasonable time frame,” Knieriem wrote on Aug. 9. “It is easy to say this, but if she wants to walk at this point, she would probably win.”
MATA-affiliated attorney Mike Schlueter has been on MATA’s emergency response team since it began in 2008. He said that between the onslaught of legal needs after the flash floods and what followed the 2011 tornado in Joplin, what’s similar is predatory repair companies coming out of the woodwork to scam those affected — and owners of rent-to-own properties taking Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) support while their tenants receive nothing.
After the 2011 tornado, someone selling a house secured FEMA benefits while the buyer, who had a single payment left on the property, didn’t see a dime. Brandstetter said that MATA has tried to raise support for a state bill that would regulate the industry and prevent these situations, but to no avail.
Every potential client who approached the legal services table the morning of Aug. 11 either paid a month-to-month lease under a landlord with questionable maintenance practices or had attempted a failed pro se case.
A woman wearing a cross necklace that shook on her chest as she spoke described her basement’s flooding. Armed with photos, she described how the water had overtaken and destroyed the washer and dryer.
She faces just one example of housing condition issues that could escalate to court after the flash floods, said Maggie LaMore, a Legal Services of Eastern Missouri attorney volunteering that day.
The case wasn’t ripe, since the woman had yet to hear back from her landlord. LaMore and LSEM paralegal Jennifer Agles told her to document everything and to call LSEM if the situation worsened.
LaMore had a chance to flex her own specialty as LSEM’s Children’s Legal Alliance program director. A great grandmother dressed all in red was there for other non-legal flooding resources, but stopped at the attorneys’ table to see if they could help her pull her great grandchildren out of foster care.
She was caring for her youngest granddaughter as a licensed foster parent when her lawyer was disbarred in the middle of her custody case. The judge then ordered the child into foster care. Since then, the granddaughter is living in St. Louis County under a new name. She hasn’t seen her great grandmother since a year ago.
Because the grandmother lives in the city, not the county, a grant funding the Children’s Legal Alliance limits LaMore’s jurisdiction to St. Louis County. The granddaughter is being fostered in the county, so it was unlikely LaMore could step in. LaMore referred her to a private volunteer attorney.
LaMore could help the grandmother register her 15-year-old grandson, who used to go to a school in the county, to attend school in the city this upcoming year. LaMore also could connect her with a social worker who can help her obtain resources — maybe even a bigger house to fit her grandchildren — to care for the kids.
Another person who approached the table had been working at a nearby faith-based booth for the last few weeks. She had until Monday, August 15 to move out of a townhome she can no longer afford before she would be evicted. She also suspected a car she recently bought had been in a flood.
Agles, who works in LSEM’s Consumer Law Program, said taking legal action around the car would be easier than solving her housing situation.
Carrying a folding chair and cushion to sit on while she waited in line outside, another woman and her sister approached the free legal services table.
“There’s people way off worse than we are, but we’re worse off too,” the sister said to Agles.
Though the woman is on a month-to-month lease, her landlord wants her to stay in the property with a ceiling fallen through, dilapidated walls and a mildew smell emanating from the entire place. Since the flooding, she’s been staying with her sister, whose basement has sewage backup. Rather than taking care of it, her landlord asked her sister’s son to pay $200 to clean it up.
Agles had her call the LSEM number right then to leave a message on LSEM attorney Rob Swearingen’s voicemail.
“You have a right to live in a place that’s clean, that’s habitable,” Agles said.