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Dispatches from Fellows pursuing water affordability and housing policy changes

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, we celebrate the work of our Fellows who are bringing us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community”—a society based on justice and equal opportunity.

Photo of Norrel Hemphill
Photo of Norrel Hemphill

“This fight for water has been going on for decades. And it’s a quiet war that has been waged against my community—Black people, poor people. These are my roots, where I come from; these are my people in Flint and Detroit,” said 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow Norrel Hemphill, who is sponsored by American Tire Distributors. “If I don’t use my talents and abilities to help my people—my community—what will become of us?”

 

If I don’t use my talents and abilities to help my people—my community—what will become of us?”

Norrel Hemphill /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

At Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, Norrel works alongside grassroots water warriors and lawyers to advocate for low-income residents in Detroit, the state of Michigan, and throughout the Great Lakes region to ensure they have access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water.

No laws—at the local or state level—currently safeguard the human right to water. A 2021 report published by the University of Michigan found that between 2010 and 2019, an estimated 175,000 households out of the approximately 300,000 housing units in Detroit experienced at least one shutoff. Residents of Detroit are not afforded procedural due process before their water is shut off, and residents will often have their water shut off due to administrative or human errors within the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).

Norrel’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship is focused on working toward water affordability through coalition-building with local nonprofit organizations, attorneys, and residents, as well as improving the Detroit Lifeline Plan, a pilot program launched by DWSD. “When DWSD initially launched the program it lacked procedural transparency, accountability, consumer advocacy protections… and it still focuses on water rationing rather than setting an affordable and sustainable rate based on income,” she explained. “I have worked with a team of attorneys and grassroot activists organized by We the People of Detroit to negotiate and support a more equitable policy. Through this work, we engaged the City of Detroit’s Ombudsman to advocate for residents and provide them with consumer protections,  extended the public comment period, and I’ve gone on record at public meetings advocating for a true Water Affordability Plan based on the ability to pay.”

With the inflation-adjusted average cost of water across Michigan increasing 188% since 1980, Norrel also collaborates with organizations in the state to provide suggestions on how the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy can disperse money from the clean water state revolving fund and drinking water state revolving fund.

“It’s not easy—community lawyering, fighting for human rights, fighting for the right to be human and to be able to live,” said Norrel. “There are long nights and a lot of behind-the-scenes coordination. I also provided recommendations for a permanent solution to water affordability working with international water lawyers at the Center for Water Security and Cooperation on their national Community Taskforce.”

“I’m blessed to have been granted the opportunity to use my talents and abilities to serve my community. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Now is the time for justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Now is the time.’”

Photo of Marianela Funes
Photo of Marianela Funes

At Tenants and Workers United (TWU), 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow Marianela Funes from the Housing Justice Program engages in community outreach, relationship building, and organizing to advance housing policy changes in Fairfax County, Virginia.

“It is unacceptable that in a jurisdiction as wealthy as Fairfax County, we have kids that go to bed hungry, parents that cannot sleep because of the high cost of rent, landlords that take advantage of tenants, and communities that cannot afford legal services,” explained Marianela, on why her work is important.

In 2021, TWU and the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance conducted the first ever survey of a mobile home community in Northern Virginia and found that more than 70% of surveyed residents reported an inability to pay for other necessities due to housing costs. This included being unable to pay their phone bills (66%), for medicine (65%), and for doctor’s appointments (65%). “These residents have to decide whether to use their money for these basic and essential needs, or pay the rent,” Marianela stated.

Residents have to decide whether to use their money for basic and essential needs or pay the rent.

Marianela Funes /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, Marianela organizes mobile home communities along the Route One corridor, aiming to prevent displacement of these communities and ensure that local governments help protect these communities by supporting opportunities for residents to purchase and own land. “There are solutions to these problems. We just have to keep pushing our leaders to take action,” she declared.

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.

We are proud of all our Fellows for bringing lasting change to our communities. Learn more about their commitment to service here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow