Laura Rashidi-Yazd, Atlanta Legal Aid Society. (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

The sharp hike in Fulton County property value appraisals and tax assessments, which in some cases doubled, sparked an unprecedented 42,000-plus appeals last month—including dozens from low-income clients of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society who can’t afford a larger tax bill.

Legal Aid was able to help them, thanks to an army of volunteer lawyers coordinated by Laurie Rashidi-Yazd, who heads its two-year old pro bono unit.

The property tax aid initiative is the most ambitious example of Legal Aid’s expansion into limited scope pro bono projects after a major $421,000 grant from the Legal Services Corp. in 2016 allowed it to create the dedicated pro bono unit.

“We were really lucky to have Laurie and the pro bono unit come in and help us,” said Stacy Reynolds, a staff attorney for the group’s Senior Citizens Law Project. “It was an enormous project because it affects all the homeowners in Fulton County.”

Rashidi-Yazd became the new unit’s director after heading Legal Aid’s Grandparent Adoption Project. She was tasked with identifying and facilitating nontraditional pro bono projects, which led to the tax appeal clinic.

Atlanta Legal Aid has always relied on volunteer lawyers, but traditionally they would take on an entire case for a client, said Kristin Verrill, the director of grants and innovation. “They never know if it will take five or 10 hours—or if it will take 50,” she said.

Offering limited scope pro bono opportunities, which are time-limited and easier on lawyers’ schedules, means Atlanta Legal Aid can expand its volunteer lawyer corps and help more clients in high-impact cases, Verrill said.

“These limited scope volunteer opportunities are where we see the growth in our program,” she added.

Taxed Out of Homes

The property tax aid initiative started when a couple of Legal Aid lawyers foresaw back in January that many of the group’s clients were at risk of getting taxed out of their homes.

One client had his property assessment double, from $40,500 to $85,100, Reynolds said. That would spike his annual tax payment from under $700 to about $1,500, which she said is more than double his monthly income.

To identify clients at risk, Legal Aid lawyers and staff reviewed 222 cases the group had handled for low-income homeowners and sent them information about obtaining homestead exemptions and other ones available for seniors and the disabled, Reynolds said.

Next they trained and deployed volunteer lawyers to call and verify that clients were receiving their exemptions. Volunteers called again after this year’s Fulton assessments went out to tell people they had a right to appeal and how to do it before the July 6 deadline.

More volunteer lawyers are currently on standby to represent clients at appeal hearings, Reynolds said.

“We could only do this project because we had the increased capacity of the pro bono unit,” Verrill said.

“We can model this in other counties, now that we know the model works,” she added.

The pro bono unit, made up of Rashidi-Yazd, a staff attorney and two paralegals, provides a single entry point for Legal Aid volunteers and coordinates its baker’s dozen of pro bono projects.

The LSC this month awarded Atlanta Legal Aid a follow-up grant of $371,500 to expand the pro bono initiative. The group is one of only 15 legal aids nationally to land one of the grants from the LSC’s Pro Bono Innovation Fund.

“The new grant is to help us break out from that traditional model of taking a case,” Verrill said.

The focus now is creating an online toolkit for staff and volunteers that provides resources for handling large-scale, limited scope projects such as the property tax clinic—and enables lawyers to take on pro bono work for the group from any location.

“We want to make volunteering easier and more accessible. We will find the right fit for you because we have so many opportunities,” Verrill said.

Legal Aid launched an Enhanced Services Project with a separate LSC innovation grant in 2015 to track outcomes for clients that it’s served, and Verrill said the toolkit will boost its ability to deploy volunteers who can provide additional advice and services to clients who need them.