Imagine a winter with no heat in your home. Mold in your vents so severe that your child becomes deathly ill. Trying to cook a meal for your family without a working stovetop or oven.
Now, imagine that your landlord doesn’t care to fix any of these issues. That’s the reality for thousands of tenants in Richmond, Virginia.
As they face the second-highest rate of eviction in the country, it’s essential that tenants in Richmond have lawyers dedicated to helping them navigate housing court. Unfortunately, structural barriers, such as bureaucratic red tape, unfair laws, and a high percentage of corporate ownership of housing, make it nearly impossible for residents to access legal aid.
Recognizing this community’s critical need for legal assistance, Equal Justice Works created the Housing Justice Program (HJP). By pairing experienced community organizers with passionate lawyers and incredibly knowledgeable housing supervisors, the HJP has been able to build trust within the community, generate momentum for this work among legal aid organizations, and prevent many evictions.
“Before the HJP, there were no full-time housing attorneys in Richmond. Having eight lawyers and two community organizers dedicated to housing work has allowed us to be proactive, not just reactive,” said Palmer Heenan, a Fellow hosted by the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
In the first six months of the program, Fellows and Community Organizers have represented over 500 tenants in court and produced successful outcomes for 391 individuals. Collectively, they have secured $63,871 in economic benefits for clients, including avoiding unlawful late fees and compensation for having lived for months in uninhabitable conditions. In addition to legal services, Fellows and Community Organizers in the program have provided community outreach and education to 1,154 people through a combination of presentations for tenants, clinics for residents who live in public housing, and workshops for housing voucher holders.
In October 2019, the Fellows and Community Organizers gathered over 100 Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) tenants to testify in opposition of RRHA’s multi-year housing redevelopment plan, pressuring the Authority to halt evictions, meet the needs of residents, and provide reliable support services. At the end of October, they worked together to raise awareness of the predatory tactics of several local landlords in the Richmond area.
All of their tremendous work led the RRHA to implement an agency-wide freeze on lease enforcement for nonpayment of rent from November 2019 to May 2020.
Everyone deserves access to safe and affordable housing. In just six months, the HJP has made remarkable progress toward filling the legal services gap for tenants in Richmond, Virginia. We cannot wait to see what else they accomplish during the remainder of the program.
To learn more about the work of our Fellows in the Housing Justice Program, click here. The Housing Justice Program is made possible thanks to the generosity of The JPB Foundation.
I am incredibly impressed by the work of the Equal Justice Works Fellows and Community Organizers. I regularly see them in court, and they have very quickly made a name for themselves by zealously and effectively representing tenants.
Chip Nunley /
Chair, Board of Directors
Central Virginia Legal Aid Society