By: Peter Hoffman, Rebecca McQuillen, and Kayla Hogan
For thirty years, Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s Economic Development Unit has represented grassroots community groups in Kansas City, Missouri’s urban core. In that time, they’ve worked with long-time residents and stakeholders to rehabilitate hundreds of vacant and abandoned properties into safe and affordable housing.
These attorneys represent nonprofit organizations in land acquisition, financing, real estate closings, tax abatement, zoning, contracting with service providers, and litigation in support of blight removal. In October 2015, Legal Aid was awarded a Legal Services Corporation Pro Bono Innovation Grant to fund its “Adopt-A-Neighborhood Project” (AAN), allowing Legal Aid to bring in additional private law firm support in targeted geographic neighborhoods. AAN’s mission is to “utilize volunteer attorneys to provide free legal services in targeted urban neighborhoods to support residents and empower neighborhood organizations.”
AAN was initially piloted in the Marlborough Community Coalition neighborhoods of Kansas City in 2009, where a team of experienced attorneys from the law firm of Stinson Leonard Street LLP worked with Legal Aid to provide targeted group representation to the Marlborough Community Coalition.  Those attorneys utilized the tools developed by Legal Aid to achieve significant outcomes including: rehabilitation of dozens of blighted properties, the repurposing of the long-empty King Louis East Bowling Alley, bringing a grocery store to the neighborhood, helping to encourage municipal officials to greatly improve the stormwater drainage system for the neighborhood and successfully fighting off a federal government plan to house a national mercury storage site just outside neighborhood boundaries.
AAN aimed to replicate those successes by using the new funds to hire two full-time staff to develop and coordinate cases with other private firms and low-income neighborhoods. In its first two years, AAN has exceeded its own expectations, enrolling seven private law firms and more than fifty pro bono attorneys, who have opened more than 115 cases representing more than three thousand hours of pro bono legal services.
AAN’s emphasis on targeted geographic representation generates a unique caseload, consisting of neighborhood-group based legal action (problem property litigation, zoning, and nonprofit development) and resident-level services (limited estate planning, tax assistance, and tenant representation). Through AAN, neighborhoods and their residents receive holistic and complimentary legal services. For example, one low-income homeowner might receive services to execute a beneficiary deed to leave her home to her nephew—her only living relative in the area—upon her passing. This ensures that her home will remain occupied and in productive use even after she passes away. At the same time, the volunteer firm might also represent the nonprofit neighborhood association in which the low-income homeowner lives to file lawsuits under Missouri’s Abandoned Housing Act to address the vacant, nuisance houses surrounding her property. In those cases, the neighborhood association contracts with a local partner to rehabilitate the vacant and blighted property in exchange for title through the Courts. The result is an improved and occupied property that positively affects the neighboring owner’s property value, creates jobs, and encourages other investment.
These complimentary services allow the private law firms to see the very real impact that their pro bono services are having on the neighborhoods that they’ve “adopted.” AAN also provides private attorneys—young and old, experienced and new—the opportunity to counsel in a variety of cases to which they otherwise may not have been exposed. AAN is especially beneficial to newer associate attorneys who gain exposure in all aspects of legal representation, from client interaction to courtroom experience. Recently, an associate at one of the participating firms conducted his first bench trial because of a tenant habitability case accepted through AAN. He received co-counsel support from Legal Aid, and is now able to take his experience back to his firm and better serve the firm’s other clients in the future.
The added boost of pro bono attorneys has also allowed Legal Aid to take on greater-impact cases than would otherwise be feasible. For example, one of AAN’s participating neighborhoods has been able to rehabilitate nearly an entire block of abandoned properties through partnership with a private school in the neighborhood. Legal Aid attorneys and private firms worked to file and litigate the Abandoned Housing Act lawsuits on behalf of the neighborhood while also drafting contracts with the school to be the neighborhood’s partner in the rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is underway this summer with plans to have the properties serve as student housing in the fall. After a few years, the school plans to put the properties on the market for sale to owner occupants, bringing more families and taxpayers to the neighborhood.
The majority of cases closed through AAN have resulted in favorable outcomes for the client or client group. This is due not only to the knowledge, expertise, and dedication of the volunteer attorneys, but also to a key aspect of the AAN system: Legal Aid co-counsels all participating attorneys as needed. AAN staff also hosts regular CLEs and roundtables for attorneys on targeted legal issues. These events allow the partnering firms to form committees with each other, share success stories, and strategize ways to improve their work and the Project as a whole.
This September, Legal Aid received word from the Legal Services Corporation and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City that funding has been secured to continue and even expand the project over the next two years. Included with that funding are resources for Legal Aid to assist other legal services providers to develop similar programming elsewhere throughout the country.
More information on Adopt-A-Neighborhood can be found here. The Marlborough Community Coalition is an umbrella organization of five low-income south Kansas City neighborhoods: Battleflood Heights, Walnut Grove, Marlborough Renaissance, Marlborough Pride, and Marlborough East.