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Success Story: VISTA Affordable Housing Preservation Project

This guest blog post was written by 2015 Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, Natalie Minev. 

Julia is elderly, disabled, and Mandarin-speaking, with very limited English proficiency.  She has lived at Van Nuys Apartments, a 299-unit project-based Section 8 building in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, for two years.  This diverse building is the home to predominantly elderly, disabled tenants who speak Korean, Chinese, and Spanish.  When Julia first moved in, she was placed in a second-floor unit that was in abysmal condition.  The apartment was located above a generator that regularly heated her apartment to over 100 degrees in the summertime, and directly outside her window was an exhaust pipe that blew toxic gas fumes into her unit all year round.  Because of the heat and toxic fumes, the walls in her apartment were blackened, her houseplants were dying, and she developed serious respiratory problems, allergies, and could not sleep.  Oftentimes, the air quality and temperature in her unit was so intolerable that she would have to sleep in the hallway with a blanket and pillow for multiple nights on end.  She attempted to complain to the property management company, writing multiple letters and reasonable accommodation requests in Chinese on a monthly basis regarding the problems.  The property management company refused to respond to her complaints and on several occasions told her that they would not accept her complaints unless they were written in English.

In early 2015, the Chinatown Coalition for Equitable Development, a tenant organizing group in Los Angeles, contacted VAHPP about Van Nuys Apartments and Julia’s issue in particular.  Julia had emerged as a tenant leader at the building because of her courage and outspokenness about the management’s failure to address habitability issues at the building.  In the summer of 2015, with the assistance of Korean, Chinese, and Spanish interpreters, VAHPP led a legal training at the building to over 75 tenants about preservation issues, how to file a fair housing discrimination complaint with HUD, how to request reasonable accommodations, and how to advocate for repairs to management.  As a result of that training, multiple tenants, including Julia, learned about their rights as limited English proficient tenants and filed fair housing complaints with HUD about the habitability and discrimination issues they were facing.  In January, VAHPP retained Julia as a client to help her advocate for a transfer to a new, healthier unit in the building and to create systemic changes in the building. 

In late January, as a result of Julia’s powerful self-advocacy, her filing of the HUD fair housing complaint, and legal advocacy from VAHPP, the property management company finally responded to her written complaints about the condition of her unit and agreed to grant her reasonable accommodation request to be moved into a safer, healthier apartment in the building.  In addition, the property management company also stated that as a result of Julia’s situation, it would be developing a language access plan for limited English proficient tenants to ensure that they are able to communicate with management about any problems.  On February 8, 2016, Julia moved into a new, spacious, clean one-bedroom apartment in Van Nuys Apartments that receives plenty of fresh air and natural light.  VAHPP attorneys Natalie Minev and Sheyda Joolharzadeh visited Julia at her new apartment (photos attached).  Julia was extremely grateful for VAHPP’s legal advocacy and said the new apartment was so much better than her last one.  Julia’s story exemplifies the way in which tenant self-advocacy in collaboration with community lawyers, tenant organizers, and HUD can result in amazing positive changes in project-based Section 8 buildings!  Julia has agreed to share her story and photo with Equal Justice Works.  

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