The COVID-19 pandemic magnified many problems in society, but few were as urgent as the homelessness crisis. With workers unable to attend work or facing furlough or unemployment, the threat of eviction leading to homelessness loomed large. Though state and federal governments stepped in to help provide short-term assistance, the threat of homelessness remains at the forefront for many individuals.
For residents of Chicago, Michelle Gilbert ’86 and her colleagues at the Law Center for Better Housing (LCBH) are at the fore of the issue, providing vital aid in legal matters.
“I’ve spent most of my career working on behalf of tenants who have various legal problems, but especially those facing eviction,” she said. “It was always housing, even when I was a generalist, it was housing that to me was the most important.”
The best way to address the homelessness crisis, according to Gilbert, is to help prevent it. As Legal and Policy Director of LCBH, she works with at-risk tenants to help keep them from being evicted. In late 2022, LCBH was awarded a $7.1 million, three-year grant from the City of Chicago Department of Housing to represent tenants in eviction court. The grant, which is also managed by Legal Aid Chicago and CARPLS, will fund the Right to Counsel in Eviction Court Pilot Program, providing legal aid to eligible low-income renters at no cost.
“One thing we know is there’s an overwhelming disparity between landlords who have attorneys and tenants who have attorneys. LCBH collected a decade of eviction court data…it shows that over 80% of landlords have attorneys and less than 20% of tenants. The data also shows that people who have attorneys are more likely to prevail in their case,” Gilbert explained.
“The idea of right to counsel is to even up that imbalance. What we’re doing now, we don’t have the funding to get tenants the same percentage of representation as landlords, but I feel like our mission is accomplished when we raise issues. It gives judges things to think about, because maybe the judge thinks about it not only in my case but also in the next case,” she added. “I feel like our impact is broader than just the cases that we take.”
The pilot program helps bring Chicago closer in line with other metropolitan areas, such as New York, San Francisco, and Cleveland, that have established a right to counsel for eviction court – a “civil Gideon,” as Gilbert explained.
This work marks the next step in her career, which has included 30 years with Legal Aid Chicago in various roles, including time as the director of their HIV law project. A career in public interest was not something Gilbert imagined as a law student at Illinois, however.
One of her favorite classes was Constitutional Law with John Nowak, and as she continued conversations with Professor Nowak outside the classroom, she found encouragement to ask different questions and develop her own sense of how the law should benefit everyone.
“He brought me under his wing. I made sure to take his other classes and I worked for him when I was a third year,” Gilbert said. “Definitely whatever I did with Professor Nowak in law school was the best thing I did. I learned so much from him in the classroom and then also being able to go to his office and talk with him.”
Gilbert sees a lot more emphasis on careers in public service at Illinois today than when she was a student, and she is happy to network with students and collaborate with Matthew Clegg, Associate Director of the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development, to help encourage more students to take a path like hers. She’s a self-described “proud Illini,” with the orange wardrobe to prove it, and enjoys sharing her passion: whether that’s taking in games with her family, including her son, a 2019 engineering graduate, or helping guide the next generation of public interest lawyers from the College of Law.