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2023 Housing Justice Program Highlights

/ Blog Post

The Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program (HJP) began as a cohort of eight Fellows in Richmond, Virginia in 2019 and has since grown to offer 32 Fellowships for attorneys and community organizers across Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia. Based on the incredible success of the first cohort of HJP Fellows, Equal Justice Works grew the program from eight Fellows hosted at three organizations in 2019 to 32 Fellows across 18 organizations in 2023. These Fellows combine direct legal services, education, outreach, and impact litigation to advance renters’ rights and hold bad-actor landlords accountable.

Housing Justice Program Fellows have made significant progress on the goals of the program since onboarding in Summer 2022. To date, Fellows have helped 3,344 households avoid evictions through direct legal services, provided one-on-one resident services to 1,999 households, trained 6,403 community members about tenants’ rights, and conducted outreach to 11,842 households. As a result of organizing and education efforts by the Fellows, 48 administrative and legislative policies to stabilize housing were influenced.

“It’s been incredible watching the impact of our Fellows’ hard work,” said Laura Roach, senior program manager for the Housing Justice Program. “Year over year, it is inspiring to see how our Fellows rise to meet the immense demand for legal assistance and help communities to influence systems that promote overall housing stability.”

Year over year, it is inspiring to see how our Fellows rise to meet the immense demand for legal assistance and help communities to influence systems that promote overall housing stability.

Laura Roach /
Senior Program Manager
Housing Justice Program at Equal Justice Works

Beyond impact numbers, Fellows were able to achieve many lasting legal wins in their communities. For example, Fellows helped tenants secure rent stabilization in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, which is just one example of the impact that Fellows are having across their states. In South Carolina, Fellows have secured an Order from the Supreme Court, which allows counties across the state to establish Housing Courts to help tenants access representation in eviction cases. Fellows also helped tenants in Virginia advocate for a bill that allows localities to pass rent stabilization ordinances.

The impact of tenants was also personal. Hosted by South Carolina Legal Services, 2022 Fellow Holly Webster represented a client with multiple disabilities who was distressed by his landlord’s decision to file an eviction action against him. The client lived in Project Based Section 8 housing, but the landlord filed an eviction action for end of lease term. Holly argued at the eviction hearing that HUD requires good cause to terminate a lease in Section 8 housing. The judge agreed and dismissed the action, allowing the client to remain in his unit. The tenant had not been aware of this legal defense, and without an attorney he may have been evicted.

Fellows Emily Blackshire and Sloan Wilson were also able to advance tenant rights to safe and healthy housing when they worked together to address insufficient housing conditions in properties owned by the Columbia Housing Authority in South Carolina. Using testimonies from more than 20 tenants, Fellows submitted a FOIA request and attended a Housing Authority board meeting to make a public statement about the conditions they had witnessed. The Fellows were interviewed by local news, which raised community awareness.

These successes by Housing Justice Program Fellows did not come easily. Fellows were met with many challenges along the way, as rent prices have increased and communities are met with record low rental vacancy rates. These factors led to a higher volume of people seeking housing-related legal aid. To illustrate the extent of this issue, Equal Justice Works conducted a needs assessment earlier this year, which indicated that 93% of organizations did not have the capacity to serve all eligible individuals seeking services for housing and eviction-related issues.

Fellows met this challenge by prioritizing the most urgent and persisting cases. In one case, organizers in Baltimore alerted an Attorney Fellow to mass eviction filings by the Housing Authority. Together, Fellows and host organizations were able to respond and prevent hundreds of evictions.

Moving forward, the Housing Justice Program aims to address two rising issues that have been identified in the communities that Fellows serve: the high volume of need for housing-related legal aid and the inconsistent application of the law. To address the first point, Fellows formed a working group to support households who must represent themselves. This group will develop and distribute high-quality legal self-help materials to tenants who represent themselves. They will also advocate with local courts and clerk offices to increase access to legal defense for self-represented tenants.

The second point was identified as Fellows across all jurisdictions have observed judges and clerks misinforming tenants and inconsistently applying the law. In response, Fellows can improve outcomes by influencing court practices and enforcing tenants’ rights in courtrooms where judges and clerks may not be fully familiar with the law. During the next reporting period, Komenge will work with Fellows to develop and engage in strategies to support and train judges and judicial systems to be more understanding and legally responsive to the communities served by civil legal aid. Equal Justice Works will also continue to facilitate trainings with subject matter experts for Fellows to ensure that they are as prepared as possible to safeguard rights of tenants in courts across their states. 

Visit here to read more stories about the work of our Housing Justice Program Fellows and how they are advocating for policies and practices that protect the rights of all tenants.

The Housing Justice Program includes Fellows hosted across Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia. The Housing Justice Program is made possible thanks to the generosity of The JPB Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Abell Foundation, Community Foundation for a greater Richmond, Maryland Legal Services Corporation, and Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow