Since 1978, Pisgah Legal Services (PLS) has advocated on behalf of the most vulnerable populations of Western North Carolina (WNC). The work demands equal parts tenacity and hope because the need is great and the lack of resources, dire. TLLF spoke with PLS Executive Director Jim Barrett to learn more about the unique challenges of rural mountain communities and the role of philanthropy in supporting solutions.
No surprise, then, that 40-50% of renters in the PLS service area are cost-burdened. Jim shares, “We have the highest housing cost in the state and a tradition of lower wages in WNC…that stems (in part) from the tourism industry not paying the same as manufacturing does. Wealthier people with mountain houses are here for part of the year, and that drives up the cost of housing because there’s not much flat land to build housing on. And then a lot of housing units are being converted to short-term rentals because people can make more money renting that way than they can long-term.”
Jim and his team give free civil legal aid to low-income individuals, and in the year and a half following the onset of COVID-19, they’ve provided legal representation and/or consultation for 1,508 eviction cases. PLS partnered with local governments and nonprofits to get rental assistance for these tenants, many of whom fell behind on payments due to pandemic-related job loss and delays in obtaining unemployment benefits.
As Jim explains, “We helped a lot of people get relief from the federal government because the distribution process wasn’t great, and landlords and tenants didn’t know how to use it…think about people’s leases running out during the middle of the pandemic, them not being able to move, rent going up. We’ve negotiated longer rental terms in exchange for tenants getting caught up on rent. It’s ultimately about increasing housing stability.
PLS also devotes a significant amount of time to domestic violence and child abuse cases, immigration law, and increasing access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
“With the system we have, you need to understand how to file tax returns and get an advance premium tax credit to bring down the cost of your health insurance…that’s if you even own a computer, have Internet service (a lot of mountain people don’t), know how to create a password, and can get online,” Jim says.
“And if you somehow manage to do all that, then you have to choose from a broad array of services…even though you’ve never had health insurance before and don’t know about deductions. If you get that far, you’re able to purchase health insurance for $10 a month because your income is just above the Federal Poverty Level.
“But at the end of the year, you have to file your tax return and square up whether you’ve estimated your income properly. There’s a lot of seasonal work in the mountains, and you might make good wages in the summer, but not enough to live on in the winter. So, you’re eligible for the ACA temporarily and then you get kicked off. If you estimated your income too high, you’re entitled to a refund; if you estimated too low, you realize you may have to pay more taxes. That’s where we come in.”
PLS walks clients through this process and provides education about ACA regulations. Recently, they’ve collaborated with the Dogwood Health Trust – an esteemed philanthropic leader in the region. “We got a very generous grant to expand our work and help more people get health insurance. Dogwood has referred clients and helped us advertise, which has resulted in more people getting health insurance here over the past few years than in some of the more urban counties as a percentage.”
TLLF’s Deborah Majewski comments: “One of the things that makes PLS such a critical community resource is the significant non-legal services they offer, particularly the work funded by the Dogwood grant.”
Jim notes that receiving unrestricted funding is incredibly meaningful for nonprofits like his because it enables them to manage resources in a way that best alleviates need in their specific community contexts.
Thanks to the generosity of local donors, PLS has helped establish over 20 nonprofits to fill gaps in WNC’s health and social services programming, and many former PLS staff have become nonprofit executive directors.
In this way, PLS has created a critical infrastructure for addressing the systemic causes of poverty in the region. From seniors to single moms, Veterans to the unemployed: PLS dignifies every client with the legal expertise they need and the compassion they deserve. It’s said that faith can move mountains; in the case of PLS, it’s clear that resilience and resourcefulness go a long way, too.
To date, TLLF has awarded $250,000 in general operating support to PLS. To learn more about Pisgah Legal Services, click here.