MPLP Celebrates 25 Years of Advocacy

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The Michigan Poverty Law Program (MPLP) is 25 years old! And what an amazing 25 years it has been.

In 1997, Legal Services of South Central Michigan and the University of Michigan Law School established MPLP as a cooperative effort. MPLP was created as the state support organization that provides training, case consultation, and advocacy support to all the civil legal aid offices in Michigan.

Since then, MPLP has made significant progress in addressing the legal needs of low-income households in Michigan. MPLP launched five statewide programs: the Michigan Foreclosure Prevention Project (MFPP) (2008); the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) (2008); the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative (MEJI) (2011); the Michigan Legal Help Program (MLH) (2012); and the Crime Victims Legal Assistance Project (CVLAP) (2017).

When MPLP started, MPLP did not have an elder law support attorney or a consumer law support attorney. Beginning with one elder law attorney in 2000, MPLP ultimately expanded into a 15-person elder justice office. This office includes state support work, systemic advocacy on elder law issues, and three different healthcare ombudsman programs for low-income beneficiaries and long-term care consumers.

In 2001, MPLP hired a full-time consumer law attorney who was instrumental in establishing the statewide foreclosure prevention project (MFPP) during the height of the foreclosure crisis in 2008. Among other things, MPLP/MFPP successfully persuaded the Michigan Legislature to adopt what is commonly referred to as the 90-Day Foreclosure Law. The legislation created significant new procedures for homeowners to seek redress from foreclosures, mandating a 90-day pre-foreclosure process during which the borrower and mortgage holder are expected to explore ways to avoid foreclosure.

From its inception, MPLP has consistently been involved in systemic advocacy to preserve affordable, federally subsidized, low-income rental housing. For example, in 2005, along with LSSCM and the University of Michigan Law School Clinic, MPLP played a lead role in challenging the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) proposal to demolish the Parkview Apartments/Hamilton Crossing in Ypsilanti. After assuming control of Parkview, HUD proposed demolishing the property or transferring it to a new for-profit owner without preserving any of the 144 units or creating new ones. After getting injunctive relief and avoiding summary disposition, MPLP negotiated a settlement that resulted in a 2-phase redevelopment, which included substantial new federal funding of the property at Hamilton Crossing and 144 new, mostly deeply subsidized affordable low-income rental housing units. The litigation alone lasted from 2005 to 2010.

In 2004, MPLP also played a key role in the settlement of the Eager v. Engler lawsuit challenging the closure to new applicants of the state’s home and community-based waiver program. The settlement not only resulted in the re-opening of the community-based waiver program but also led to a myriad of systemic reforms and expansions of home and community-based services. Since the settlement, MPLP/MEJI has consistently pursued the lawsuit goals and built on the successes achieved. 

On the family law front, MPLP successfully prevented legislation that would create a presumption of joint custody. MPLP was also instrumental in having the legislature pass a bill to address confidentiality; in having the Personal Protection Order (PPO) statute amended to create a sexual assault PPO. MPLP’s public benefits attorney led a coalition of advocates in the drafting and passing of the Medical Records Access Act in 2004. This law provides for one free copy of an individual's medical record. (MCL 333.26269.)

One of MPLP’s important roles was providing support during the pandemic. As a support office, MPLP was positioned uniquely to handle much of the emergency response during COVID. During the pandemic, MPLP attorneys advocated for various emergency protections and responses--including eviction and foreclosure moratoria, rental assistance programs, long-term care covid policies, stimulus check protections, and a water shutoff moratorium. This advocacy included work with the state judiciary, Governor’s Office, Attorney General, other state agencies, and community groups. MPLP also ensured that the everchanging COVID policies were disseminated quickly to advocates. 

MPLP’s accomplishments over the years are a testament to its longtime dedicated staff: Jim Schaafsma, Lisa Ruby, Rebecca Shiemke, Alison Hirschel, and Lorray Brown. 

Finally, we are at a critical moment as we consider how to bring a racial justice lens to MPLP’s work. Currently, MPLP is working toward intentionally centering race equity issues in our work. We are also engaging in more class action litigation. For example, in September 2020, MPLP, along with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU of Michigan, and the National Consumer Law Center, filed a federal civil rights class-action lawsuit against Vision Property Management and its affiliates and their investors for discriminatory targeting of Black homebuyers for abusive credit terms in home purchase transactions. MPLP hopes to engage in similar cases in the future.