By Shelby Williamson, senior communication specialist in the Office of Marketing and Communication
“Women and Men for and with Others” is a new feature story series about faculty and staff who are engaged in service off campus.
Once a month, Associate General Counsel Jessica Franken volunteers at the Eviction Defense Project, a court-based, free legal aid for low-income tenants facing eviction.
The opportunity to give back forever changed not only Franken’s life, but the lives of those in serious need of her help and legal expertise — and it all started with a book she read in 2016.
The book by Matthew Desmond, Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City, opened Franken’s eyes to the profound eviction problem affecting Milwaukee’s low-income residents.
Many people across Milwaukee County are being evicted, often wrongfully, Franken said. Even worse, they do not understand their rights, the process of eviction or how they go about resolving the situation — leaving them forced to make difficult, uniformed decisions that can have a devastating impact on their livelihood.
“People tend to have the impression that people get evicted simply because they’re poor,” Franken said. “But in reality, eviction is often what causes and perpetuates poverty. If a landlord sees eviction on your record, even if it has been dismissed, that can prevent you from being able to rent. And it’s very hard to maintain a job when you don’t have a place to live.”
At the time she began volunteering, Franken was a partner for Quarles & Brady law firm. She knew she wanted to do something to help those being evicted — who had neither the knowledge nor the means — navigate the court system. Turns out, her law firm was in the very beginning stages of working with Legal Action of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Justice Center to create an avenue to ensure those facing eviction do not unjustly lose their housing. The initiative became the Eviction Defense Project, based in the Milwaukee County Courthouse.
Franken wasted no time — and began volunteering hers.
She has since continued to provide brief on-site legal advice pro bono for those facing eviction who qualify for the service.
Franken quickly works with defendants in eviction lawsuits and the landlords to come to an agreement, whether a payment plan, a more reasonable move-out timeline or to get the matter set for a hearing. All too often, she said, landlords file inaccurate lawsuits, claiming tenants owe more money than they actually do, and in some cases, landlords keep rental properties in terrible condition and will not address the problems.
In addition to getting eviction cases dismissed, Franken also works to get the files of tenants sealed as to not hinder their chances while looking for new housing.
Without the Eviction Defense Project, Franken said, many more people facing eviction would proceed without legal counsel, their cases likely resulting in a default judgment, which can leave them homeless with their belongings on the curb or held for payment in storage facilities.
“And these are individuals who are already on a very tight budget,” she said. “Maybe something happened — a health issue that prevents them working or an expensive car repair that puts them in the difficult position of choosing to feed their children or pay their rent.”
Franken’s job helping her clients begins and ends each day at the courthouse, but she knows it will have a lasting effect — that’s why she keeps coming back.
“I’m fortunate I work at Marquette where public service is important and valued,” she said. “Every day I volunteer, I know I made a difference in someone’s life. I can’t necessarily stop people facing eviction from having to find another place to live, but I can at least say I’ve been able to buy them enough time to get their things and find a place to take them and not having them just being thrown to the curb.”
Franken hopes to continue connecting with those in need through the Eviction Defense Project, as well as forwarding them to other resources like education on how to be a good tenant. She also wants to see landlords with a dark history of wrongful evictions be held accountable and put out of business.
Stories about faculty and staff who are engaged in service off campus.
Do you know a faculty or staff member who gives their time and talent to service outside the university community? We want to hear about it. Share your story idea with Marquette Today by emailing Abby Cole in the Office of Marketing and Communication.