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Government & Law

The Lawyer Who Landlords Don’t Want to See in Court

Attorney Mark Melton started helping people on Facebook during the pandemic. Before he knew it, he’d assembled the country’s only group of lawyers focused full time on stopping illegal evictions—and saving taxpayers millions.
| |Photography by Jill Broussard
Mark Metlon attorney
Mark Melton started his eviction advocacy work with a Facebook post to explain how business owners could navigate lockdown. Then it morphed into tenant advocacy and took over his life. Jill Broussard

Mark Melton stands in the eye of a storm, a waiting area outside the 1-1 Justice of the Peace Court, in the South Dallas Government Center, an uninspiring building off Interstate 20. Two other lawyers whip around the room, clutching clipboards and trying to reach about two dozen tenants in the next 20 or so minutes before court is called into session. Two legal assistants sit at a card table, hurrying through paperwork with clients. Melton, a partner at Holland & Knight who specializes in tax law, has the height and build of an edge rusher, one who prefers Maker’s Mark to protein shakes, with a charcoal beard and a fleeing hairline. Today, he’s wearing a tailored navy blue suit with a baby blue tie, a lighter blue dress shirt, and black Oxfords. If the outfit doesn’t make it clear enough, Melton, 46, is perched near a sign that reads, in English and Spanish, “FREE ATTORNEY FOR TENANTS.” 

Sixty-one cases are on this Friday’s eviction docket. Years of data show that without an attorney arguing their case, nearly all of them will lose their apartments in a matter of minutes. The attorneys are here to stop that, if they can. 

“This is a well-oiled machine now,” Melton says, still avoiding the fray. “I think I’ll fuck it up if I jump in.” 

The machine is the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center, a team of 10 lawyers and seven support staffers. Housing experts have not been able to find another operation like it in the entire country. Legal Aid works in the same space but is federally funded and far more limited in terms of whom it can serve. Melton started this work with his wife, Lauren, in the first week of the pandemic. It began as a Facebook post to explain how business owners could navigate lockdown. Then it morphed into tenant advocacy and took over their lives.

Four years later, and three years after incorporating the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center, Melton spends his time fundraising, educating justices of the peace about housing law, advocating to elected officials, and recruiting more attorneys, doing the work that makes the machine more efficient. Today that means convincing at least one client that she needs help. About half of today’s defendants will not show up at all, which is typical. Maybe they couldn’t find transportation. Maybe they felt the decision had already been made. In his 1-1 Court, Justice of the Peace Thomas Jones will issue immediate eviction judgments on every contested case where the tenant is absent.

With minutes to go, attorney Nichole Harden is trying to get a woman wearing pajama pants and Crocs to sign her retainer for the day, which will allow her to represent the woman pro bono. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if you go up there by yourself,” Harden says. “But I will represent you, and I believe I can get it dismissed.” The landlord filed the eviction under the woman’s middle and last names, which violates state property code. She eventually signs, and Harden wins a dismissal an hour later. 

Melton realized early in the pandemic that, without legal representation, tenants who face eviction were essentially being asked to argue in a language foreign to them. Their reflex too often is to narrate intimate tragedies rather than point out that their landlord didn’t give them enough notice or didn’t deliver the notice in a legal fashion or didn’t file notice with the court using a business name as it is registered with the Secretary of State. Judges need a legal argument, not an emotional one.

When he began, Melton suspected landlords weren’t following the law and that nobody was in court to check them. The first year proved him right. With three attorneys, they litigated 853 cases and won 96 percent of them, which saved taxpayers millions of dollars in support services that would otherwise have gone to evictees. 

“It’s easy to win when you’re right,” Melton says. “And landlords just don’t do it right. Ninety-six percent of the time.”

Mark Melton was once evicted himself. In 1999, he was 21, a newly married father of a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old. He was living with his then wife, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he grew up, one of nearly 4,000 people employed by Commercial Financial Services, the nation’s largest debt collector at the time. Melton says he “separated people from their money.” But CFS filed for bankruptcy, and its CEO, Bill Bartmann, faced 58 federal counts related to defrauding investors. Though he was found not guilty, the company shuttered.

Melton, through no fault of his own, lost his income, then his rental home. Desperate, he moved his family to Dallas in search of work. He went to downtown office buildings, punching random floors in elevators, popping out to ask receptionists for job applications. 

This was how Melton came to understand the vicissitudes of life. He’d grown up in a household with a father who had interesting notions about his relationship with the federal government. He was about 5 years old when he saw a story on the local news about his dad’s TV and VCR repair store being seized by the IRS for nonpayment of taxes. “He thought that the constitutional amendment that allowed for income tax was bullshit, and he shouldn’t have to pay taxes,” Melton says. 

Rush Limbaugh’s voice echoed through his childhood home. His dad listened to Jerry Falwell sermons. Before his eviction, Melton says, he was a “Trump Republican before it was cool.” Lazy people relied on the safety net. But now here he was, after the collapse of CFS, waiting in line at a county clinic to get free vaccinations for his kids. “I’m everything that I never thought I would be,” he says. “Like, God, where are my bootstraps?”

He was humbled. And radicalized. He’d done everything he’d been told would secure him stability, and he was still struggling. The only reason he found an apartment, he says, is that a landlord near Five Points—a crime hotspot near Park Lane, east of Central—told him they “needed more White people in this neighborhood.” He could skip the $495 rent until he found a job. His infant slept in a fold-out baby bed in a closet. His daughter slept in the living room. But they had a roof.

He enrolled in junior college in Tarrant County and paid the bills with cold-calling sales jobs and a night gig bouncing at a country bar. Afterward, he earned a master’s in taxation at UT Arlington and began working at an accounting firm in Fort Worth after graduating. The high school moot court champion liked arguing, so he decided to pursue law school, eventually taking night classes at SMU. He graduated in 2008, less than a decade after he was nearly penniless in Five Points. Then came a tax law job at Hunton Andrews Kurth and, in 2018, partnership at Holland & Knight.

It wasn’t lost on him that he wouldn’t have gotten there without catching some breaks. And so, two decades later, when he took to Facebook to explain how business owners could operate on the right side of the law during a pandemic, he was struck by the comments to his posts. Many people—regular folks—were running out of money to buy food and pay their rent. Melton started translating the Texas property code for people who were about to lose their homes.

To help in the near term, the Meltons sent money over Zelle and Venmo to commenters who said they couldn’t pay their bills. They helped people move in the middle of the night, becoming masked regulars at a hotel near their home, just east of Ferguson Road. Melton joined eviction proceedings on Zoom, representing clients he’d never met. He used Facebook to recruit hundreds of attorneys to help for free. He organized furniture drives and GoFundMe accounts. He advised the city on drafting an eviction moratorium. Lauren started studying eviction laws.

The vaccines came and businesses reopened—but the eviction filings kept growing. So the Meltons kept at it. They became minor media darlings, sharing their story with the AP and CBS Evening News. In 2021, with a $50,000 grant from the Meadows Foundation, Melton filed paperwork to start the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center as a nonprofit. He and Lauren work for free. 

Until recently, evictions in Dallas were something of a mystery. Justice of the Peace courts, of which Dallas County has 10, are not courts of record, meaning there are no stenographers. The elected judges hear small claims, with lawyers rarely present, so there’s little oversight. The judges even control how they record outcomes. The county provides them with software to track their cases, but the judges don’t have to use it. Before the pandemic, no one really knew how many evictions were being filed in Dallas County. 

This mystery attracted the attention of the Child Poverty Action Lab (CPAL), a local nonprofit that studies housing insecurity in North Texas. Before the pandemic, CPAL partnered with Dallas County to track evictions for the first time by collecting each day’s docket. In 2019, there were 43,306 evictions filed across the county’s 10 JP courts. The CDC issued an eviction moratorium six months into the pandemic, cutting the figure in half, but by 2022 the number returned to its previous level, and this year it is on track to top 40,000 again. Dallas has the fifth-highest filing rate per capita among large American cities, according to data collected by the Eviction Lab. The median amount the tenant owed has tripled over this period, according to CPAL, from $950 in 2019 to $2,530 today.

If you find it hard to muster sympathy for someone who doesn’t pay his rent, consider the cost of an eviction to taxpayers. When people lose their homes, they soak up social services. A study by the Waco-based Perryman Group found annual savings of $40 million for the city and county when free legal services are provided to just 5,000 tenants facing eviction. “The cost burden is largely assumed by departments within the city and county budgets due to uncompensated healthcare, criminal justice and shelter costs, along with downstream tax benefits,” the report found. 

As CPAL and Melton’s Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center gathered data on the JP courts, it appeared that landlords have been forum-shopping, filing evictions in a court where they expect the scales of justice to tilt their way. Judge Jones’ 1-1 Court in southern Dallas is by far the busiest of Dallas County’s 10 JP courts. Last year, landlords filed 9,924 evictions in his court. The next-highest-volume court is 5-1, which includes Northwest Dallas and Cockrell Hill, where landlords filed 5,007 evictions last year. Right next door to Judge Jones’ 1-1, Judge Valencia Nash oversees 1-2. Only 2,333 evictions were filed there. This part of town is dense with apartments and includes some of the poorest ZIP codes in the county, but the different caseloads between the two next-door courts show that something else is in play. Harden, the attorney, says that Judge Nash studies cases before they come to her, looking for errors that might lead to a dismissal. Judge Jones considers only what is presented to him in court.

That was the next matter CPAL studied, not just how many evictions were filed but how those cases resolved. The organization parked SMU law students in five JP courts from November 2022 through April 2023. They found that judges sided with landlords in just 7 percent of cases when tenants had legal representation. Those without an attorney lost nearly 70 percent of the time. Melton sees this as evidence that landlords aren’t following the law. When cases get dismissed because of an error, tenants get more time to settle their debt. Melton worked with the United Way to secure rent relief, and his team works with tenants to find other ways to reduce their debt.

“I’m still not necessarily opposed to the idea of eviction,” Melton says. “I understand that there needs to be positive and negative incentives to do the right things, however you define that. But whatever those processes are, they should be fair and equitable.”

The Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center wasn’t the first to provide free representation to eviction clients. That work has long been the realm of Legal Aid, which, like Melton’s team, sets up a table and tries to find tenants who need representation. But Legal Aid is funded by the Legal Services Corporation, a congressionally created nonprofit that sends money to attorneys all over the country to represent low-income Americans on matters as varied as divorce to wills and estates. Because the money is federal, it often limits whom its attorneys can serve.

Three of Melton’s attorneys once worked for Legal Aid, which they speak highly of, but they all wanted to do more. “Whenever Mark snatched me up, one of the key things I told him in building this, I said no government funds,” says Stuart Campbell, the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center’s managing attorney. “No funds that give us red tape.”

Melton’s goal is what he calls “saturation theory.” Put attorneys in every JP court and scale the effort. That rush to register clients in the 1-1 Court doesn’t happen if intake involves checking income or immigration status. He sees it as a waste of time that could be spent getting tenants on retainer. 

The philanthropy class is responding to the model. The center’s revenue grew from $300,000 in 2021 to $1.6 million in 2023, according to its tax documents. In addition to the Meadows Foundation and the United Way, the center secured gifts from Margot Perot, the Dallas Foundation, the Williams Family Foundation, and the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation. In March, Melton actually turned down $240,000 from the city’s leftover federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Accepting the money would have required them to represent tenants only in districts 7 and 14, which includes Pleasant Grove and much of downtown and East Dallas. 

As Melton told the team his decision over a Zoom call, Campbell shook his head knowingly. “It would change our intake process in a way that I’m not willing to change it,” he said. He’s hopeful the city will spend the federal dollars on something else, which would then free up an equivalent amount from the general fund, cutting the red tape.

A little after 1 pm on that Friday in March, Harden and her colleagues exit the 1-1 courtroom. She represented 20 people, all of whom got to stay in their homes. A day earlier, she’d gone 16-0. The staff takes a group photo to mark their achievement, as they do every day in every court. But for all this effort, Melton’s team is representing only about 13 percent of tenants who face eviction. For years, this resource wasn’t available to the county’s most vulnerable residents. Reality always sets in after court: Melton says he needs to hire another 10 attorneys.  

This story originally appeared in the May issue of D Magazine with the headline “A Real Homer.” Write to [email protected].


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Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…