Tom Fritzsche has come full circle.
The new executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the statewide organization that provides legal services to low-income Mainers in civil matters, grew up in Kennebunk. His father, retired Superior Court Justice Paul Fritzsche, worked for the group from 1975 to 1981.
He’s taken over the legal aid group at a time when it’s seen an increase in requests for housing-related help as a large emergency rental assistance program funded by federal COVID relief money has stopped accepting new applications, as well as an uptick in requests for help from domestic violence victims.
Fritzsche, 41, of Portland has been on the job since early September. He took over the reins of the organization after Nan Heald, who headed the organization for more than three decades, died of cancer in January at age 66.
Pine Tree Legal, which opened in 1967, is the largest legal aid organization in Maine.
Fritzsche oversees a staff of 75 — including 47 attorneys and 15 paralegals — in offices in Portland, Lewiston, Augusta, Bangor, Machias and Presque Isle. Its 2022 budget is $8.67 million, with about 34 percent coming from federal funding and about 48 percent from the state. The rest of the budget is funded through grants and donations.
Now that MaineHousing is no longer accepting new applications for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Pine Tree Legal has seen the demand for help with housing-related issues increase, Fritzsche said.
In the first three months of 2022, the organization opened 1,027 new housing cases, which made up 61 percent of all of the organization’s new cases in that time. Since July 1, it has opened 1,266 new housing cases.
“Right now, low-income Mainers face an ongoing housing crisis that is about to get dramatically worse,” he said. “Putting our eviction defense team in position to succeed by efficiently representing as many people as we can will help vulnerable folks maintain stable income and family conditions and, frankly, will save lives over the winter.”
To meet that demand and others, Pine Tree Legal will have to grow, he said.
Pine Tree Legal also is seeing a slight uptick in new requests for help from victims of domestic violence, but it is prepared for that increase.
“Last year, we partnered with Partners for Peace in Bangor and Family Violence Project in Augusta on applications for federal funds to provide legal assistance to victims of domestic and sexual abuse,” he said. “With those funds, we’ve added staff attorneys in our Bangor and Augusta offices.”
In addition to staff attorneys, Pine Tree Legal is on volunteers in the legal community to take on cases. During the first eight months of the year, lawyers in private practice handled 270 cases and worked 5,747 hours for Pine Tree clients for free.
Fritzsche said that he is thrilled to be back in Maine with his wife and 6-year-old daughter.
“Pine Tree is a fantastic organization,” he said. “I knew this would be a great opportunity to be part of this team.”
Fritzsche graduated from Kennebunk High School, Amherst College in Massachusetts and the New York University School of Law. His first job as a lawyer was working for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, where he represented immigrant workers in low-wage industries across the Southeast who were confronting violations of their rights.
Later, as a fellow at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City, he helped teach the Immigration Justice Clinic, where law students represent immigrants and community-based organizations in individual immigration cases and in law and policy reform projects.
He came to Pine Tree Legal from Vermont, where he was the executive director of the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, which monitors participating dairy farms’ compliance with human rights standards for farmworkers.
Those experiences were what made Fritzsche the right person to lead the organization, according to Dan Emery, chair of the Pine Tree Legal board of directors.
“He has a wide range of experience in legal services and most importantly, a real passion for the work,” Emery said.
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