This is a guest blog post from VISTA Affordable Housing Preservation Project (VAHPP) Fellow Tatyana Manning ('16), of Legal Services of Greater Miami in Miami, Florida.
The AmeriCorps VISTA Affordable Housing Preservation Project (VAHPP) dispatches attorneys and tenant organizers to help save low-income, project-based Section 8 housing from losing their contracts. My job, more specifically, is to enter properties with poor living conditions and notices of non-renewal. I organize the tenants and help them increase capacity by providing them with team-building skills and legal support. I inherited two tenant associations from a prior VAHPP Fellow, and started another on my own. I also preserved an entire building, and organized a lawsuit against a property within the first six months of my Fellowship. Needless to say, I am learning a lot. It was purely by chance that I ended up in Miami, serving at Legal Services of Greater Miami, for AmeriCorps VISTA. I applied knowing I could end up in any of five states, but Miami called and I came running. I applied to serve with VAHPP, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and AmeriCorps. At the time, I knew nothing about housing, but helping the underserved community was something that I had always been passionate about. It didn’t matter what area of law, as long as I was helping people.
Each VAHPP Fellow is doing different work to achieve the same goal: to make sure that the tenants of the properties we enter are able to keep their homes. In South Florida, what I see most often is non-renewal of Section 8 contracts with conditions so poor that they are facing termination of their subsidy. I have learned that there is no handbook to address these problems, because each property has its own specific needs. Every building houses a unique group of people, all of whom require your passion and commitment.
Before I organize, I do inspections. I go into buildings, door to door, and talk to people who have been living in poor conditions for years. I teach them that they have rights and that they do not have to continue to live in a place where no one is making repairs. While I cannot offer them a new home, I can certainly help them fix the one they have. Sometimes the tenants feel as though the task is daunting, because they have rodent and insect infestations, or walls and ceilings collapsing around them. I spend time in these same buildings, observing what they experience, so that I can properly advocate for them and get their homes back to habitable conditions. In cases of non-renewal, I assure tenants that I will work diligently on a plan to explain to the owner why they should renew the contract. Additionally, I prepare tenants for the changes, and do what I can to make sure that they can maintain housing should the owner not renew.
In my time doing this work, I have achieved a lot both personally and professionally. I am awed by the tenants’ ability to confront the obstacles they face, with such strength and dignity. They are the ones that make it easy for me to keep pushing for them. They are fiercely fighting for their homes and I am simply there to organize them and the occasional lawsuit. When the elevator broke at one of the properties, mobility-impaired tenants were stuck for months in their homes without access to necessities like food, medication, mail, and fresh air from the outside world. When they contacted me, I was there almost every day: I walked dogs, took out garbage, brought food, and helped elderly tenants and those with disabilities up and down the stairs. We filed a lawsuit and were granted an injunction requiring the elevator to be fixed, all while fighting to keep the building operational as an elderly- and disability-friendly facility, as well as having tenants who could not leave their apartments relocated somewhere safe. This happened in my first month of service and by the third month, the elevator was repaired and the tenants returned to their homes. Today, the building is still operational and all of the tenants remain there.
More recently I worked to preserve a property in which there was a non-renewal. The owner ultimately agreed to renew the contract, and it became Legal Services’ first successful VAHPP preservation. Although they still face extensive conditions issues, it is a great victory. I had repairs completed in two apartments, and generated the interest of 12 more tenants, who decided to form my first tenant association. As I embark on this journey with these tenants, I am excited to see what the future holds for them. They give me the confidence and the inspiration to keep finding new and innovative ways to provide them the support and protection they need. My experience with the tenants is what fuels my project and keeps it so close to my heart. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow with them. It has truly been my honor to serve for AmeriCorps, and I hope to dedicate my legal career to public interest law and more inspirational people like my tenants.