The University of Houston Law Center received a $205,000 grant from the Greater Houston Community Foundation on July 12 that will allow the law center to launch its Hurricane Consumer Assistance Program.
This program will provide assistance to people who were affected by Hurricane Harvey and have legal issues related to the hurricane and its damages, including landlord/tenant disputes and contractor problems.
Ryan Marquez, a UH Law Center staff attorney and professor heading this project, said the center plans to help about 1,000 individuals with this program.
"Even on the news [when Harvey hit], I'd see an attorney go on TV and tell people that if their residence was completely or partially uninhabitable, you didn't have to pay rent. That's not true," Marquez said. "In Texas, there isn't such a thing as a warrant of inhabitability. It hurt a lot of people to hear that misinformation."
The number of landlord/tenant disputes decreased as Harvey victims found temporary or permanent housing options, but the number of contractor complaints increased. According to Marquez, contractors don't have to be licensed by the state of Texas to do work.
"Contractors came in and did partial work, but didn't finish the job and took people's cash anyway," Marquez said. "A lot of people believe that contractors have to be licensed by the state, so they'll ask me how to get their license taken away and that's simply not a solution."
He suggested researching and checking references and with the Better Business Bureau before hiring a contractor, even if it takes extra time.
"People don't always do the necessary research because they just want to get back into their homes, which is understandable," Marquez said. "But you only really get one shot at this, and it might take a little longer or be a little more expensive, but it saves you money and time later if you research before hiring."
About 30 to 40 UH law students and other volunteer attorneys will advise clients about their legal rights, potentially represent them in court, send demand letters to settle disputes and offer other legal assistance. Marquez said the center also hopes to inspire more pro-bono work in the law community.
"We hope other practicing attorneys will see the need for this kind of assistance and do some pro-bono work in the case of another future disaster," Marquez said. "We just want to shed light on the misconceptions of consumers' legal rights."
The program is twofold: the first goal is to help consumers directly, and the second is to educate both law students and the public for future disasters or hurricanes.
"Even if we can’t take the case, we can inform them on what their rights are and that can give them peace of mind on 'Am I doing this right?'" Marquez said. "That can really make a difference in cases like these."
Those looking for assistance can call 713-743-2094. Marquez and Janet Heppard, an associate professor of clinical practice and the clinic director, are also working on online applications and a website link.
"We know there's a lot of need out there. There are not enough places where people can go and/or call to get info, so we hope this is a place where people can call and get legal advice," Heppard said. "A lot of people just need to know what their rights are and then they can take care of themselves."