WVU law students assist flood victims

By Dee Thompson | Dec 19, 2016

MORGANTOWN -- The floods that devastated West Virginia last summer left behind many victims who didn’t understand their legal rights and were duped by dishonest landlords in rent-to-own scams. Students at the West Virginia University College of Law have received hands-on experience trying to help those flood victims understand their legal rights.

Priya Baskaran, the director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic at the West Virginia University College of Law said, “The law clinic is a course in the law school for final year law students to actually get hands-on experience in the community. Those of us who are clinical professors are also licensed attorneys who have been in practice. 

"We’re the practical arm of trying to tackle some of the issues that were going on. Another professor and I went down to Greenbriar County and just had a meeting to see about getting involved in helping flood victims.”

Baskaran, who is also a licensed attorney, is spearheading the WVU program to help flood victims in nearby Rainelle. Some victims were told by their landlords that they had to spend the money they received from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Association) to repair their homes damaged in the flooding. Unlike homeowners, they didn’t have coverage under homeowner’s insurance.

The end result of Baskarat’s efforts is that WVU law students have put together educational materials for flood victims who don’t understand their legal rights in rent-to-own situations.

In rent-to-own arrangements, tenants do not have the benefit of landlord tenant laws or home purchasing laws, and often end up making repairs to homes they do not own and will likely never own. Many of the rent-to-own deals are sealed with a handshake and there is no documentation. 

Baskaran told The West Virginia Record, "We’re seeing people trapped in real estate disputes, being tricked into these rent-to-own situations. Some homes were completely destroyed by the flood, and FEMA told them they were only eligible for renter’s recovery, which is limited essentially to five thousand dollars.”

Baskaran said the rent-to-own arrangements are often propagated by landlords who care nothing about helping their tenants. 

“Many people don’t have enough funds for a down payment and don’t have enough credit to qualify for a mortgage," he said. "Nothing gets fixed when they rent to own. So with most states a rent-to-own situation is a lease, pure and simple, so it should be covered under landlord tenant law. The way the deals are often structured, however, shifts all the duties of the landlord onto the tenant.”

Landlords often tell tenants they will have to do their own property repairs at their own expense. Abatement (of mold, lead exposure) issues are very common in rent-to-own arrangements.

The university also made other efforts to help flood victims. In addition to collecting food, water and cleaning supplies for the affected areas, James Jolly, director of marketing and communications said, “The Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic has been active in providing pro bono legal services in impacted communities before and after the flood. This includes developing comprehensive plans that have a flood management component and helping write ordinances that speed up recovery efforts. 

"Our students in the law clinics are prepared to take referrals from Legal Aid and the state bar to provide pro bono assistance with issues like FEMA appeals, debt relief and property ownership.”

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