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ABA Section of Business Law

Business Law Today

Pro Bono in action
By Allyn M. O'Connor
A pro bono-neighborhood partnership
If you walked through Kansas City's Ivanhoe neighborhood in the early 1900s, you would have passed beautiful homes wrapped by crisply painted porches and surrounded by well-tended lawns. Middle-class neighbors would greet each other with a wave and a smile. By the 1990s, however, Ivanhoe had changed dramatically. Over 40 percent of the homes had been demolished or were abandoned. Absentee landlords neglected many of the remaining homes, and illegal drug activity was thriving. Today, though, this is changing--thanks to tough abandoned housing legislation, a strong neighborhood group, a legal aid organization, and a team of volunteer lawyers.

The Missouri Abandoned Housing Act (the Act) permits courts, upon petition, to transfer ownership of vacant, neglected, tax-delinquent properties to nonprofit organizations for rehabilitation. The Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council (INC), the organizing entity and voice for area residents, viewed the legislation as a tool to implement its strategic plan: economic development, crime reduction, and neighborhood beautification. Around the same time, lawyers at the Kansas City office of Bryan Cave LLP were seeking a targeted, sustained pro bono opportunity in which firm lawyers could concentrate their efforts and see the impact of their work. Bryan Cave's Perry Brandt approached Legal Aid of Western Missouri (LAWMo) for pro bono partnership ideas. LAWMo's Gregg Lombardi had already been working with INC to help identify properties as candidates for rehabilitation under the Act, and suggested INC as a client.

With the help of LAWMo and these volunteers, INC began a coordinated effort to obtain possession of eligible properties. The effort starts when INC, along with LAWMo and the volunteer lawyers, identify the single-family residential properties that are good candidates for rehabilitation under the Act. According to INC Executive Director Margaret J. May, volunteer lawyers tour the Ivanhoe neighborhood and become familiar with the properties. They note the problems associated with the property, such as delinquent taxes and housing code violations. With the volunteer lawyer's assistance, INC notifies property owners that certain deficiencies make the property eligible for acquisition and rehabilitation. Volunteers also provide assistance negotiating with property owners, and when it appears the homeowner does not intend to cure these deficiencies, the volunteer will prepare and file the petition necessary for INC to acquire the property under the Act.

INC's May indicates at least two properties will be move-in ready by mid-2008. May explains that INC's goals are for the majority (at least 70 percent) of Ivanhoe neighborhood homes to be owner-occupied with families. A handful of owners have voluntarily repaired and improved their properties as a result of INC's efforts. May concedes that the process is slow and deliberate. And LAWMo's Lombardi comments that there have been some setbacks--instances where a property owner may cure one, but not all, of the deficiencies that make the property eligible for transfer to a nonprofit for rehabilitation. Yet Jeremiah Morgan, a Bryan Cave volunteer who has worked with INC since mid-2006, advises pro bono lawyers "[not to] quit even if the results aren't what you want." Morgan indicates there has been no shortage of lawyers volunteering to work with INC, and suggests that law firms seeking pro bono opportunities reach out to the people and organizations that know the legal needs in the community--for them, it was LAWMo.

"Ivanhoe is at the tipping point," says LAWMo's Lombardi. Both he and May note that, given its accessibility and proximity to downtown Kansas City, Ivanhoe stands a good chance of once again becoming a desirable neighborhood for working-class residents. Bryan Cave's Morgan agrees that Ivanhoe will again be a great neighborhood, and notes that the lawyers who assisted on a pro bono basis can claim a piece of that success.
O'Connor is assistant staff counsel for the Section of Business Law's Pro Bono Project in Chicago. Her e-mail is oconnora@staff.abanet.org.

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