Friday, January 11, 2008

Going to New Orleans

Since the levee failures (I acknowledge that my descriptor “levee failure” represents not an insignificant value judgment, but more on that later), the impact of those failures on home ownership, foreclosure, and revitalization have been well documented. Some things we know:

1. Many people lost critical documents which would prove their home ownership;
2. Though lenders initially were willing to forbear mortgage payments, home foreclosures are sharply increasing in Louisiana and Mississippi;
3. Rents have skyrocketed in New Orleans, and affordable housing has been choked off as a result. Higher rents represent a confluence of several factors: the influx of construction workers—with steady paychecks (though no prevailing wage rights) which can cover higher rents, landlords needing to refinance in order to rebuild and pass on the mortgage costs to tenants (where perhaps there was no mortgage before), fewer rental units due to the number of houses destroyed, and/or sheer opportunism and predation by landlords;
4. The Road Home program, and other revitalization initiatives, have been slow in compensating those want to rehabilitate their homes.

The students coming to New Orleans were to engage in a few projects:
Community presentations to citizens regarding how to avoid foreclosure rescue scams;
Assisting lawyers at New Orleans Legal Assistance in direct client representation through research, client, or fact witness interviews; A walk through the Lower Ninth Ward—“ground zero” of the levee breaches.

1. Are lenders, brokers, or home improvement contractors engaged in predatory practices in New Orleans, and if so, in what ways?
2. Are those impacted still disproportionately being steered into loans with high interest rates, ARMs, and fees?
3. What local or state laws and policies adversely impacted the ability to rebuild?
4. How do those most directly affected talk about the event? About themselves or loved ones? About people they know who have been affected?
5. Why do some describe the events as “when the hurricane hit,” versus “the levee failures.”
6. How has the race of construction workers (largely Hispanic or Latino/Latina) surfaced in the ongoing dialogue about the African-American population, the poor, immigration, and justice? What are the real or constructed tensions?


David Koen, a NOLA attorney, and our contact, met with us. He described NOLA, his work, and several projects he wanted our assistance on.

The students and Katija spent the day working on a predatory lending litigation project that raised unique ethical issues for lawyers: when a lawyer is threatened with Rule 11 sanctions, does the threat create an untenable conflict of interest, under which the attorney must withdraw from representation? Sanctions are serious for all attorneys; but they are of no small consequence to legal services organizations such as NOLA—which would be facing attorneys fees sanctions in the 6 figures.

Listening to David talk about his current predatory lending work post-disaster, it occurred to me [again] the meaning of words folks use consciously or unconsciously: I talk about Hurricane Katrina, and what it wrought; David talks about when “the levees failed.”

I thought about this, and the next day, the students and I considered it after we left the Lower Ninth.

1. what does it say about memory?
2. what does the distinction say about ‘culpability”?
3. what might the distinction say about citizens’ relationship to: God? Government?
4 what might the distinction say about the person who describes the event as a Hurricane, or a Levee Failure: is the vantage point a victim, a beneficiary, a victim/survivor advocate [like David]?

Nick Gasca’s hotel room might be haunted!


Started out the morning at NOLA wondering if the gig at the Senior Center would happen. Our contact at NOLA had been unable to reach the contact person at the Center, and so nothing was firmed up. So, Christine and Nick began reviewing documents which would be the basis of a phone interview later in the day with prospective NOLA client.

Turned out, roughly at 9:30, we had a confirmed presentation, and something we hadn’t really prepared for: we needed to discuss home contractor financing, when I had told the student to expect a conversation on foreclosure rescue scams.

Nick and Christine are quick studies. Katija is also so bright, and dives into the substance of issues—never willing to stand by and just work the logistic magic. But in this instance, she did the administrative lifting (taking pics, passing out presentation materials) while Nick and Christine got a crash course in: home rehab contracting, public speaking, and presentation organization. They (including Katija), were also on the ready to discuss rescue scams, in case anyone had any questions.

Once there, Nick and Christine did a very nice job presenting. It’s always very cool to see student in action—especially when they can be nimble, and go with the flow of requests not anticipated. I tell students in the PLC that I don’t ‘simply’ want them to prepare to be lawyers; I want to prepare them to be “public citizens.” I try to impress the fact that they are going to be called upon to be leaders in their communities. They are going to sit on boards, are going to interact with their neighbors, are going to engage in formal and informal counseling on issues they know. As a result, they are likely to be in situations in which their skills, knowledge, and expertise will be demanded. Sometimes that demand will be ‘on the fly,’ sometimes that demand will allow them time to think and prepare. Christine, Nick and Katija were ready, and game, for it all.

Nick and Christine spoke to roughly 40 attendees about the cautions of home rehabilitation contracting. Their past experience, and their spider senses proved very handy. On top of those characteristics, they were fearlesss and game for what came at them. After the presentation, several audience members approached us with follow up questions. Of course, some of their questions had little to do with what we presented…some salient concerns about reverse mortgages were raised. We did our best to address those.
Driving away from the Center, we considered a host of questions/”what ifs”/takeaways:

1. What are the challenges of presenting to the elderly?
a. Possible cognitive and attentive challenges
b. Hearing, reading, and sight challenges
c. The relevance of family members or “regarded others” (e.g., Sylvia, the Assistant Director of the Center) in helping/supporting seniors if they encounter the situations we described

2. What are general principles of presenting to community groups?
a. Do you know more than they do
b. How do you draw in an audience by first posing questions (Nick got this to the tee)
c. How do you draw audiences in by telling your own personal stories or experiences
d. What do you say to break the ice with an audience like, say, commenting on their surroundings (Cool Christine!)
e. How do you create connections with your audience through sharing personal experience (nice again Christine)

From the Center, we went to the Lower Ninth. It was sobering. I had a difficult time myself going there again. It seemed to be a profound experience for all 4 of us. It was my second visit to that area, and two sights continue to wreck me:

1. Steps to nowhere. 2 or 3 concrete steps on a lot, but nothing where the house should be.

2. The spray-painted “X” on the homes left by the National Guard searches: the top quadrant of the X having a number signifying the date the house was searched (e.g. “9-10” for September 10th); the bottom, how many bodies were found in the home; the left quadrant—the Guard unit that did the check; the right quadrant, whether there was an entry or no entry into the house. On some houses, animal rescue missions spray-painted “1 dog dead,” “cat found alive,” or the like.

It was a pretty quiet drive back to NOLA. While the silence could have been due to a variety of factors—the time of day, we hadn’t eaten, coming down from an adrenaline draining presentation—I think the primary reason was seeing the Lower Ninth.

A church destroyed, but a makeshift sign outside of the church with an opening passage “CAN THESE BONES LIVE?” that make my eyes well up. In the book of Ezekiel, God poses that very question to him, and Ezekiel says “O Lord God, thou knowest.” A sight of despair; a declaration of hope and resolve. The photo to the right is of the inside of the church.

A rooftop of one rehabilitated home that still blazoned a plea: “thank you Jesus. The x family needs gas water and ice. June we are o.k.”

Also other signs of hope. Some pockets of life. Contractors working. Neighborhood folks moved (back) into their homes, outside, talking to other neighbors. Some beautifully rebuilt homes with signs announcing “We’re back!” or “New Orleans Is My Home!” Dang.

Pink—no, fuschia---tents for 2 blocks wide and maybe 5 blocks long. We wondered what the heck they were. Katija’s photos tell the story best, but the short answer: a not for profit org [Brad Pitts’s] had erected home-sized sheaths in the shape of a rooftop, a segment, or an entire home. Donations would result in the build of these home segments, which would ultimately, ideally, result in 150 homes in the section at which the levees allowed the water to breach at its highest.

Written by Bryan Adamson

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Reflections on Day 3

Today was a busy day. We started out with a presentation at the Kenner Senior Center in Kenner, LA, a small suburb near the airport. Public speaking is not my forte, but I found out it's much easier when you can start with a little small talk. (Maybe I should try that next time I am standing in front of a judge and see how well it works!) The presentation went fairly well, even though several people were a little upset that Bingo was delayed!

After the presentation, we toured the Ninth Ward. I am from Florida, so I have experienced my share of hurricane damage. Still, this is 2 1/2 years later and the damage looks like what I am used to seeing maybe 2 1/2 weeks or months after a hurricane. It was absolutely horrible. There were still power lines not attached to poles (I'm sure they weren't live wires, but I still think it was disgraceful!). Every now and then you would get glimpses of hope, though, when you would see a home rebuilt or in the process of being rebuilt. The playground across from an abandoned school looked almost new; it was sad though, because there was nobody playing on the equipment, just a lone man picking up cans to make money from the recycling plant.

I was impressed with the pink house project that Brad Pitt had something to do with. I liked that they had something to represent each of the properties that was lost. It was like someone telling the people, "We have not forgotten you," in a place that mostly looks forgotten.

Finally, we did a phone interview of a client. His story was very moving; I wish we were staying around to see it through. I hope for his sake he gets what he is after. He is doing everything in his power to make his situation work out for the best; I respect him for that and just want to help him that much more to make it work for him.

When we left NOLAC today to come back, I found my mother had arrived. She drove over from Pensacola to pick me up; I will return there tomorrow and to Seattle on Sunday. It was comforting to see my mom after seeing so much devastation today and hearing the client's sad story. I will be sad to leave New Orleans tomorrow, and sadder still to go back to one more semester of hard work next week.

The Third Day

Well today was very eventful. The students did a great presentation at the Kenner Senior Center. Kenner is about 20-30 minutes outside of New Orleans. The senior center was alive with activity because a few minutes after our presentation was scheduled to be over, it was BINGO time! Nick and Christine did a wonderful job of presenting and we thought it went really well. They talked mostly about what to watch out for when working with contractors or with getting a home loan. Bryan also talked about a few things including reverse mortgages. That was the big issue of the day.

After the presentation, we took a tour of the 9th ward. Words cannot express the depth of the devastation we witnessed. It seemed that only one family has moved back into their house on each block, if that. Most of the houses and apartments were totally gutted. Each house had a big X spray painted on it. On each of the four sides of the X was a number or code. The bottom of the X was the spot to note how many bodies were found in the home.

I have some pictures and video, but uploading isn't working at the moment.

This evening, Nick and I went in search of souveneirs. It went well and I got a great art print of jazz players. I am so excited about it. The French Quarter is such a special place to see and be in. I took a billion pictures and will make sure you all can see them.

I am sad tonight is my last night, but I feel like we have had a great experience here so far. Seeing this devastation really is overwhelming. At least I can take comfort in the small things we were able to do for NOLA and the help we were able to offer a few of the people who live here. I know our work is a tiny drop in the bucket, but it is something I guess.

I will write more tomorrow hopefully.

Reflections on the First Two Days

Because I was already on vacation in Pensacola, Florida, I drove over here (New Orleans is only 3 hours away from Pensacola by car), I was able to see some of the destruction on my way in. Driving on the highway through Mississippi, I saw giant Southern Pines snapped in half like matchsticks. The wind is truly a powerful force.

Coming into Louisiana, we crossed the makeshift bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. It was four lanes, but divided into two separate bridges. The huge gaps in the grate were the a bit disconcerting, but to avoid Lake Pontchartrain is to add many hours to the trip, so we crossed anyway. I saw the new bridge they are building across the lake and thought that the contractor in charge of that project must have been happy to get that huge job.

As we came into New Orleans, I was surprised at how many people still had "blue roofs" two years later. (For those of you who have never lived in or been to a hurricane-affected area, a blue roof is one that is still covered by a tarp -- which is invariably blue -- because the roof has not yet been repaired.) I saw houses and apartments that were completely gutted. Not to be too depressing, I also saw some apartments with the stickers still on the windows; rebuilding is taking place, but it can only happen as fast as it can happen.

I arrived in New Orleans earlier than everyone else on Monday. I walked around and enjoyed the madness that was New Orleans on the day of the BSC Championship game. While enjoying a cafe au lait and some beignets at the world famous Cafe du Monde, I met some friendly Ohio State fans who were down to see the game. We enjoyed our coffee together and then went on our separate ways.

Everyone else arrived around 6 p.m., and then we partook in some authentic New Orleans cuisine before resting for the next morning's work.

On Tuesday, we went to NOLAC to see what tasks awaited us. Our first task was to write a memo on a professional responsibility topic. After searching diligently for a while, I remembered the great resource we at Seattle University are all lucky to have: John Strait. He helped us with some search terms and some background information. For all those who have him for PR -- pay attention to him! He really does know what he's talking about, and I am sure that information will help all of us when we take the PR portion of the bar exam!

After a long day of work, we enjoyed dinner at the House of Blues. I had never been to the House of Blues before, and I was very impressed. The walls were covered with beautiful artwork contributed by various African American artists. I loved the richness of the colors and textures that made the art feel alive.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel, where I got a good night's sleep and am now ready to see what Day 3 has in store for us. I'll let you know how it goes!


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Second Day

It is great weather here. The temperature is in the 70s and there is a nice breeze to take away the fog of the humidity. We set out bright and early for our first day of work here. This first picture is of Bryan, Nick & Christine outside our hotel right before we set off.

We are working with New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLA), which is a legal services organization with 4 branches all over Southeastern Louisiana. We are working with an attorney named David Koen. David works mainly on Predatory Lending issues. As you can imagine, there is a lot to do on the subject here and we had a good introductory meeting this morning.

The first project was to do some research on whether the threat of sanctions by opposing counsel can lead to a conflict of interest. The students did some great research and submitted a memo on the subject to David and his co-counsel. Here they are hard at work...

The other project that I worked on involved investigating a man who NOLA has a judgment against on behalf of four families here in New Orleans. He owes a substantial amount of money to the four families. The man was later arrested for defrauding people by promising to renovate their homes, but ended up taking their thousands of dollars and never even starting any renovations. The task was to try and find information on where this man has lived in the past and whether he had or has any assets so that he can fulfill the terms of NOLA's judgment against him.

Tomorrow should be very exciting with a presentation at a local Senior Center and a client interview in the afternoon.

The people at NOLA are all very friendly and willing to help out. As you can imagine, they have a lot of student volunteers coming in and out, including a lot of law students. It is great to see all of the interest in helping out down here, but sad that things are such a mess. David was telling us that the Prosecutor recently resigned due to the disarray at the Prosecutor's office. Things are slow moving. There is too much work, too many cases and very few attorneys to handle it all.

We are going to head out for dinner shortly and I will hopefully be eating some Jambalaya or some other awesome Cajun dish. I will write more soon...

The First Day

We made it to New Orleans!! By the time we actually got settled in, it was about 6:30 p.m. We soon ventured out into the balmy night in the French Quarter. It was wonderful to feel the heat after our rainy, cold weather last week in Seattle. We walked a block and found a great place to eat. We all had traditional Southern/Cajun food, so I am sure you all would be proud. It was all very yummy!
We eventually made our way to Bourbon Street to check out the festivities for the BCS Championship football game. Surprisingly, there were quite a few Ohio State fans (Bryan included). Things on Bourbon Street were crazy of course. What an adventure! It is a great spot for people watching. Folks of all ages were there dancing in the streets and yelling at the top of their lungs for their chosen team. The energy was palpable. Unfortunately, we called it a night fairly early. We must remember we are here to work!