Fighting Fire with Esquire

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Volunteer attorney comes to the rescue

Laurie A. Martin Montplaisir, Robbins, Salomon, & Patt, Ltd.

It all started in 2010. Tamara had just moved into an apartment building provided by a senior housing program. She was offered a family unit to rent in a fully accessible facility. This was essential for Tamara’s 16-year-old son who suffers from severe mental and physical disabilities.

A single mother with three children, Tamara called her Rogers Park apartment home for eight years. Family photos lined the dressers in the bedrooms, and the hallways were dotted with bright and colorful posters for her youngest child to learn the alphabet. Other than the medical equipment needed to treat her son, Tamara kept the unit clean, warm, and welcoming for almost a decade.

On an evening in March of last year, Tamara lit a candle in her bedroom and went to the kitchen to prepare a meal for her family. The candle flame set Tamara’s mattress on fire. Distracted by her cooking, Tamara didn’t immediately notice the fire alarm.

Once she saw and smelled smoke, Tamara instinctively grabbed an extinguisher and put out the fire. She hurried her children outside to safety, carrying her disabled teenage son in her arms. Thankfully, neither Tamara nor her children were hurt.

But that’s not where the story ends.

Tamara’s family was safe, but her housing was in jeopardy. Firefighters broke a window to get access to the unit, and they could not turn off the sprinklers. Tamara’s apartment had serious damage.

As a result, the housing program told Tamara that they were going to terminate her lease because the apartment had been “rendered untenable” by the fire. Unable to communicate with building management on her own about how they came to that decision, Tamara came to CVLS for help. At our Old St. Mary’s neighborhood clinic, she met with volunteer attorney, Laurie Montplaisir.

Laurie, moved by Tamara’s story, challenged the housing agency on its decision. She disputed the cause for termination and explained that Tamara had the right to request reasonable accommodations for her disabled son under federal law.

Under the guidance of Supervising Attorney Matt Hulstein, Laurie kept the pressure on management, and they eventually relented. Tamara was able to stay, and the housing provider has promised to make all of the necessary repairs.

The difference between having an attorney and representing oneself is monumental. If not for Laurie, Tamara and her three children would be homeless. Her story illustrates the power of pro bono – having an attorney give a voice to someone who desperately needs one.