Beyond Lawyering: How Lawyers and Community Organizers Work Together in the Housing Justice Program
By Laura Roach, program manager for the Housing Justice Program at Equal Justice Works.
Equal Justice Works is currently conducting a legal needs assessment to understand the capacity of community-based organizations to meet the legal needs of low-income communities aﬀected by evictions and involuntary displacement. The information collected through this assessment will help to inform strategic expansion of our Housing Justice Program, which places attorneys and community organizers at nonprofits to provide eviction prevention and advocacy services. If you belong to a legal aid organization interested in hosting a Housing Justice Program Fellow, please consider completing this needs assessment by Friday, May 26.
Housing is a fundamental human need and the basis for stability and security for families and individuals. Without adequate housing, other necessities of life—such as doing homework, holding down a job, cooking, or washing—can quickly become difficult. Home is the foundation around which we build our lives, and yet housing is portrayed as an investment vehicle for building wealth in the United States. Those who own houses are motivated to ensure the value of their properties rise while the “have-nots” must navigate the rental market where landlords are often bolstered not only by wealth, but by the law.
The Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program seeks to even the playing field between landlords and renters by providing legal and community organizing support to low-income communities where landlords have the upper hand. First launched in Richmond, Virginia, in 2019, the Housing Justice Program (HJP) mobilizes lawyers and organizers as Fellows to provide legal assistance to those facing eviction and to advocate for reforms to advance housing stability. 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 2022. Serving across three states, these Fellows combine direct legal services, education, outreach, and impact litigation to advance renters’ rights and hold bad-actor landlords accountable.
In sheer numbers, the current cohort of HJP Fellows made a significant impact during the first year of their Fellowships. Since Summer 2022, the Fellows have provided housing-related direct legal services to 1,989 households comprising more than 4,900 low-income individuals. Most cases were failure-to-pay-rent eviction cases brought by private landlords. When Fellows provided extended representation, they prevailed in 77% of cases, often preventing or delaying evictions to provide time for the affected households to find alternative housing. Fellows also secured over $1,580,000 in recovered and avoided monetary benefits for households at risk of displacement.
Because of these relationships, tenants have been more willing to contact legal aid attorneys, attend tenant meetings and, most importantly, appear in court.
Virginia Poverty Law Center /
Host Organization for the Housing Justice Program
The Housing Justice Program is unique among Equal Justice Works Fellowships because attorney Fellows work in concert with organizer Fellows who build community relationships. As reported by host organization Virginia Poverty Law Center, “[the Fellow] has established relationships of trust with tenants in communities in Richmond and Henrico. Because of these relationships, tenants have been more willing to contact legal aid attorneys, attend tenant meetings and, most importantly, appear in court.” In fact, organizer Fellows referred 383 households to attorney Fellows for legal support. The referral relationship between organizer Fellows and attorney Fellows is reciprocal: attorneys frequently refer clients to organizers for resident services like rent and utility relief. To date, organizer Fellows provided resident services to 950 households, primarily led by Latina women with children, and comprised of more than 2,100 total individuals.
Through direct services, systemic injustices are clarified and HJP Fellows work together to advance tenant protections and advocacy efforts. To make housing more affordable, Fellows helped tenants secure rent stabilization in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The city of Mount Rainier passed a permanent Rent Stabilization bill capping rent increases at 60% of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) annually, making it the first municipality in Prince George’s County to pass such a measure. This bill will ensure that rent is more affordable and consistent for working families. In South Carolina, Fellows helped secure an Order from the Supreme Court, allowing counties across the state to establish Housing Courts that will help tenants access representation in eviction cases. In the Charleston Pilot Housing Court, 75–100% of tenants represented had their evictions dismissed or delayed.
As a collective force to be reckoned with, Housing Justice Program Fellows continue to advocate for the rights of families and individuals to live in stable and healthy homes. Fellows support local and state initiatives to establish permanent rental assistance, improve the accessibility of legal materials, and promote a right to counsel in eviction cases.
Building on the momentum of the Fellows, Equal Justice Works is currently conducting a legal needs assessment to understand the capacity of community-based organizations to meet the legal needs of low–income communities aﬀected by evictions and involuntary displacement. The information collected through this needs assessment will help to inform strategic expansion of our Housing Justice Program, which places attorneys and community organizers at nonprofits to provide eviction prevention and advocacy services. If you belong to a legal aid organization interested in hosting a Housing Justice Program Fellow please consider completing this needs assessment by Friday, May 26.
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, Maryland Legal Services Corporation, and Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina.