Building Bridges Between Legal Providers to Disrupt the Cycle of Evictions in Richmond, Virginia

/ Blog Post

By Hana Hausnerova, director of public programs at Equal Justice Works

Richmond, Virginia has been trapped in concentrated poverty and high employment rates for decades. In 2016, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University built the first nationwide database for evictions and found that Richmond had the second-highest eviction rate in the country, with 6,345 evictions reported that year.

To help advance housing justice in Richmond, Equal Justice Works designed the Housing Justice Program in 2019 with funding from The JPB Foundation. The program brought together its first cohort of eight Fellows (six lawyers and 2 community organizers) in partnership with three legal services organizations.

Between 2019 and 2021, the cohort worked on disrupting the cycle of evictions faced by low-income tenants, resulting in some impressive feats. The Fellows increased access to justice for low-income tenants by collectively assisting more than 4,800 low-income tenants through legal advice, brief service, and full-scope representation. Of the tenants served, 73% were female, 73% were Black, and 68% of clients were single. Many of the single clients identified themselves as single mothers. In helping tenants and families stay in their homes, Fellows were able to secure more than $1 million in combined economic benefits for their clients in rent relief, fee waivers, etc.

Additionally, the Fellows strengthened tenants’ capacity to advocate for their own interests by conducting more than 326 presentations (virtually and in person) for over 40,000 low-income tenants on an array of topics, such as “Know Your Rights,” addressing substandard housing conditions and repairs, challenging unfair and unlawful lease terms, eviction advice, as well as understanding changes to housing laws and Housing Choice (Section 8) vouchers. In one example, after seeing Fellows featured on the local news, residents at a Section 8 subsidized complex showed up to a presentation to share the problems they were having in their apartment building and schedule time with the Fellows to collect more information.

Empowering tenants by providing them with both representation and information is the most efficacious way of ensuring the eventual diminution of the constant imbalance of power between landlords and tenants.

HJP Participant

During their time in the program, Fellows were able to support the development and strengthening of tenant organizations. They assisted with the formation of seven new tenant associations, and strengthened six pre-existing groups and collaborated with 37 separate organizations focused on housing justice. The level of community outreach achieved by the Housing Justice Program is an excellent example of the strength in collaboration between Fellows. Organizers, familiar and well trusted in the community, helped recruit tenants and build trust for the attorney Fellows.

To help increase capacity of the legal aid community in the Greater Richmond Region, Fellows developed and conducted 11 housing law continuing legal education sessions attended by 206 pro bono attorneys. Fellows also developed tools for eviction lawsuits filed in violation of the CARES Act that were shared with legal aid attorneys throughout Virginia.

As a result of the Housing Justice Program, several of the legal services host organizations started to work together collaboratively on legislative reforms. This team of Fellows enhanced our understanding of how we can use our particular skill sets to enhance each other’s work.

HJP Supervisor

Perhaps most importantly, the Fellows supported systemic change to further empower tenants. Housing Justice Program Fellows collaborated with their host organization supervisors and Equal Justice Works, to yield at least 111 media placements and at least 36 meetings with policy makers at the local and state level. They also raised the voices of tenants during the legislative session. These combined efforts resulted in multiple changes to Virginia’s landlord tenant laws.

In the courtroom, Fellows provided “friend of the court” guidance for pro se litigants and, upon request from the bench, provided education to the judges to keep them abreast of the quickly changing laws affecting landlords and tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Fellows succeeded in getting the Petersburg General District Court to include a resource sheet with all eviction lawsuits served on tenants in Petersburg that included information about how to access the Virginia rent relief program, the Virginia Poverty Law Center eviction hotline, and legal aid. Overall, their actions led to improvements in the administration of justice as more courtroom practices became aligned with intended eviction protection policies, and generated momentum towards tenants having the right to be represented by counsel in housing cases in Virginia.

The Housing Justice Program amplifies the success of Equal Justice Works Fellowship Programs, and shows that a team approach with dedicated lawyers and community organizers focused on a single issue with training and support produces far better and lasting results.

“This Equal Justice Works Fellowship provided an invaluable opportunity to build bridges across multiple organizations to accomplish meaningful work with a group of like-minded, committed attorneys,” 2021 Fellow Morgan Colonna.

Recently, Equal Justice Works successfully secured $3.75 million from national foundations to expand the Housing Justice Program into other jurisdictions with high eviction rates in Virginia and beyond, including Hampton Roads, Virginia, a region encompassing four of the top-ten evicting cities in the country. The second cohort of the Housing Justice Program will be in the field in 2022.

This Equal Justice Works Fellowship provided an invaluable opportunity to build bridges across multiple organizations to accomplish meaningful work with a group of like-minded, committed attorneys

Morgan Colonna /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow