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Students bring legal literacy program to Mercy Housing

On an early morning in April, third-year students Arielle Einhorn and Courtney Redman previewed a new legal literacy training program for employees at Mercy Housing Lakefront, a nonprofit affordable housing development and management company in Chicago’s South Loop. The Legal Literacy Program provides Mercy’s more than 3,900 residents with an overview of housing-related laws.

A training video filmed and presented by law students offers in-depth descriptions of federal and local housing topics such as the Fair Housing Act, Resident Landlord Tenant Ordinance, security deposits, abandonment, habitability, and utilities and leases. For example, the "Understanding Your Credit" module presents information on the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Fair Credit Reporting Act. Once residents complete the video, they assess their knowledge through an online quiz and reinforce this information in a group game of Jeopardy.

“The training program is designed to provide residents with a platform to gain skills and obtain and maintain self-sufficiency to eventually move to the private market,” said Assistant Professor Julie Lawton, director of the College of Law’s Housing & Community Development Legal Clinic. Under her direction, the clinic partnered with Mercy Housing to develop the Legal Literacy Program.

The project was created by students who participate in the clinic, in addition to their regular course load. The template took about a year to develop, Lawton said, and an additional year to refine. Clinic students Taylor Goulbourn (JD ’14) and Victor Price (JD ’13) drafted the Legal Literacy Program curriculum with guidance from Professor Lawton and Mercy Housing. The following year, Einhorn and Redman refined it, directed the video and presented the final product to educators, staff and residents of Mercy Housing. Lawton said the concept was conceived in her consultation with former president of Mercy Housing Lakefront, Cindy Holler. Holler had shared some of the challenges residents were having during their transition to facilities operated by Mercy. Residents arrived with diverse housing backgrounds; some were homeless and some were moving from other public housing facilities. New residents sometimes found the lifestyle at Mercy more regimented than what they had previously experienced.

Lawton said that Mercy Housing sought an environment that was “more proactive than punitive,” with the idea that helping residents understand their rights and obligations from the start might make the transition a little easier. “I applaud Mercy for trying to create a program that will be helpful to their residents,” she remarked. As part of the development of the video training, senior management at Mercy requested that DePaul include Mercy Housing property managers and case managers in the review and editing process. Overall, employees were pleased with the program and offered a few minor suggestions, such as making the language easier to understand and more reader-friendly for residents.

“We want to make sure the information is accessible to the residents, helpful and, as an educator, I want to make sure the process is a valuable educational experience for students.”

In a session later that month, Einhorn and Redman presented the program to Mercy Housing residents. The program will be rolled out to all residents this summer.