Attorney Breezy Schmidt has a passion for helping people that makes her job with Legal Services of North Dakota a perfect fit.
Schmidt said there's a special compensation that goes with a job like hers.
"It's about the intangible things. I get thank yous from people sometimes. It really does make a difference in their lives, and that's what matters to me," she said.
A Minot native, Schmidt had interned at Legal Services of North Dakota in Minot in 2011, the year of the Souris River flood. The experience exposed her to the good that the agency can do.
"I loved it so much. I realized I really wanted to come back here and give back to my community," she said. "It was the only job I really wanted to apply for. I was really hanging my hat on this."
Legal Services hired Schmidt back as an intern in May 2012, after she graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law. Upon passing the bar in September 2012, she began practicing law with the agency.
Legal Services of North Dakota is a statewide nonprofit with a mission to provide quality legal services to elderly and low-income North Dakotans. Seven to eight attorneys work in offices in Minot, Bismarck, and Fargo, along with a part-time office in Grand Forks. The services cover family, housing, employment and consumer law and assistance with legal documents.
Schmidt specializes in housing. As a consequence of Minot's tight housing supply and increased rents, she has assisted people with eviction issues due to
inability to pay rent. In some cases, clients may face multiple evictions in moving from one unaffordable apartment to another.
"People have nowhere else to go, and it's kind of a cycle," she said.
Schmidt said she can't do anything about the rents, but she can advocate for the homeless.
She chairs the board of the Minot Area Homeless Coalition and is temporarily chairing the newly formed Community Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. The committee is working with city consultant CDM Smith on a plan to increase the supply of affordable housing, including finding ways to involve private stakeholders.
Schmidt also serves on the board of the YWCA, which provides permanent supportive housing and emergency shelter for women.
Schmidt said many resources to aid her in addressing housing issues are available in other states.
"What North Dakota is doing, other states have done 10, 20 or 30 years ago. We are really behind the curve," she said.
Although those outside resources are available, it can be difficult to overcome a hesitancy to change and implement solutions in North Dakota, she said.
"That's one of my biggest frustrations. There's so much positive change we could make," she said. "I really think we need a statewide tenant association, a nonprofit to advocate for tenants."
She also would like to see mandatory fair-housing education for landlords. Discrimination can occur when landlords don't understand the legalities of fair housing laws, Schmidt said. Some examples of discrimination might be declining to make accommodations for a disabled person or rejecting a potential tenant because the person receives public assistance.
Particularly thorny issues have arisen from situations in which people generously opened their homes to rent bedrooms because of Minot's housing shortage. Often there are no written leases and landlords and tenants do not understand their rights and responsibilities, leaving the arrangements open to problems, Schmidt said.
"We try to educate everybody as best we can while advocating zealously for our clients," Schmidt said of Legal Services. She is available to speak to groups who are interested in knowing more about landlord and tenant relations.
As the only attorney with Legal Services of North Dakota specializing in housing law, Schmidt has assisted with cases around the state. She has had success in helping clients who lost their apartments when companies bought the buildings for their workers. In one instance, she was able to negotiate with a company to enable her elderly client to remain in her unit at reduced rent. When her client later decided to relocate, the company provided financial assistance with the move.
Schmidt helped a client obtain a refund when overcharged under the public housing assistance program. She assisted flood victims charged rent despite their flooded apartments being uninhabitable. She represented low-income residents of temporary housing units with lease concerns when the Federal Emergency Management Agency began charging rent. She advised clients who bought rehabilitated houses when those houses developed mold infestations.
In addition to assisting people with legal affairs, attorneys with Legal Services identify other needs that clients have and make referrals. Schmidt said Legal Services works with a variety of community and social services agencies and receives many of its client referrals from those groups. Legal services are free to clients.
Legal Services depends heavily on federal funding, which will be cut by more than $100,000 in North Dakota next year. The agency supplements with other funding sources, and Schmidt has added grant-writing to her job skills. Legal Services has been successful in getting grants and also received funding from Aging Services in the North Dakota Department of Human Services, from fees charged in the court system for case filings and from private donations.
As housing becomes more available in Minot, the immediacy of housing issues has declined, but the need for legal representation hasn't diminished, Schmidt said.
"When I graduated from law school, I never saw myself practicing housing law," she said. "But I have really grown to love it, and I really, really hope that this area of law grows within Legal Services and we are able to concentrate even more on it."