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Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program Continues to Fight for Tenants as Mass Evictions Loom

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By Arthur Smith, program coordinator for Equal Justice Works

Despite its relatively small population, Richmond, Virginia, has the second-highest eviction rate among large cities in the United States. Between poverty, high unemployment rates, and laws that favor landlords, Richmond’s housing situation has become a systemic crisis: in any given year, nearly 31% of all the city’s renters will receive an eviction notice.

Richmond’s history of redlining and segregation have compounded racial and economic inequalities in the city. The life expectancy of residents in Gilpin, a predominantly black neighborhood, is 63 years. In contrast, just three miles away in Westover Hills, a predominantly white neighborhood, residents’ life expectancy is 83 years.

Launched last fall, the Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program was created to help families currently or at risk of experiencing housing instability in the Greater Richmond Region.

Over the past several months, the six Fellows and two Community Organizers in the Housing Justice Program have worked as a unified front to respond to the housing challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial inequalities that it has brought to the fore.

In August, Housing Justice Program Fellow Palmer Heenan secured a huge victory for tenants at Henrico County Court, successfully petitioning the court to dismiss a number of eviction cases from tenants at Glenwood Farms Apartments. The property owner had filed unlawful detainers for nearly 30 residents, in violation of the CARES Act eviction protections. After the judge dismissed the 20 cases scheduled for the first day, the property owner voluntarily dismissed additional cases that were on the court’s docket for the following day.

In addition to direct legal representation, Fellows and Community Organizers have been focused on broader advocacy before the courts, leading to the filing of memoranda in support of both CARES Act eviction protections and state-level eviction protections (via House Bill 340). Due both to direct legal representation and this broader advocacy, along with requests from local community groups, courts in the Greater Richmond Area and across the state have adopted additional protections—such as requiring that landlords submit an affidavit attesting as to whether they are covered by the CARES Act—culminating in the Richmond General District Court dismissing nearly 100 eviction lawsuits in one day, all of which had been filed in violation of the CARES Act.

Another key component of their work has been sharing information and resources with the public. Palmer has been featured twice on WTVR CBS 6 Richmond to share important information to renters. In his first segment, Palmer discussed how landlords are circumventing the eviction moratorium. In his second segment, he gave tips on what tenants should tell their landlords to help avoid eviction.

The ramifications of eviction have always been profound, but during a global pandemic, they are more than that: they are life-threatening to the families being evicted and will have far-reaching impacts on our community.

Palmer Heenan /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

“The tragic reality of representing tenants facing eviction during a global pandemic that has already claimed nearly 200,000 American lives is about so much more than huge numbers of evictions,” said Palmer Heenan, a 2019 Fellow hosted by the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “Families are being displaced and exposed to the coronavirus. Elderly Americans are at risk of becoming homeless. Nurses, accountants, and construction workers are all facing a new reality: that they and their families may soon no longer have a place to live. Children are unable to attend virtual classes because they have no Internet access in the car their family is now living in. The ramifications of eviction have always been profound, but during a global pandemic, they are more than that: they are life-threatening to the families being evicted and will have far-reaching impacts on our community.”

Fellows and Community Organizers have played a critical role in pressuring the Virginia state government to implement and extend the eviction moratorium. Fellows at Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) have worked closely with Legal Aid Justice Center, New Virginia Majority, tenants, and other legal services organizations in Virginia to put pressure on Governor Ralph Northam to issue and extend the eviction moratorium. After the first eviction moratorium was announced, VPLC and its partners continued their campaign and successfully helped pressure Governor Northam to request another extension of the eviction moratorium. While this extension was not granted by the Virginia Supreme Court, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recently issued a nationwide ban on evictions that is in effect through December 31. However, that ban only applies to certain categories of tenants and is only effective if tenants provide their landlord with a declaration that they are covered by the CDC moratorium.

We look forward to sharing more successes from the Fellows and Community Organizers in the Housing Justice Program as their great work continues. The Housing Justice Program is made possible thanks to the generosity of The JPB Foundation. Learn more about program here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow