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In the Spotlight: Housing Justice Program Community Organizer LaFonda Page on Helping Tenants Assert Their Rights

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Photo of LaFonda Page

LaFonda Page is a Community Organizer in the Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program. She recently took a brief break from her work to chat with Equal Justice Works about what motivated her to join the Housing Justice Program and her experience advocating for tenants in Richmond, Virginia, who are experiencing housing instability.

What inspired you to get involved with this work? Why are you passionate about addressing the eviction crisis in Richmond? 

I was inspired to get into this work because I am a public housing resident. I was getting treated so badly that I felt it was important for me to know my rights. Once I learned my rights as a tenant, I wanted to go back out and help people in the community understand their rights and know that we [public housing residents] do have a voice and that we do have rights. And, for residents to be aware that there are people out there who are willing to work with us and help us, so you don’t have to afraid of these landlords anymore. We can stand up for ourselves without retaliation.

 Can you tell me a little bit about some of the challenges that public housing residents face and what happens when a tenant goes to a landlord about these issues? What is the typical response?

Some of the challenges include poor and unsafe living conditions—leaks, frozen pipes, bed bugs, no heat, and rodents. Landlords will say “put in a ticket and someone will answer the ticket.” We [public housing residents] will be waiting for months, sometimes even years for them to even come out and fix the problem. The landlord will say that sometimes they don’t have the right people for the job or that they don’t have the proper equipment. They will say they need to contact another contractor. The problem just never gets resolved.

What tools and resources do you use to help public housing residents overcome these challenges?

I give them [public housing residents] the phone number to legal aid organizations so they can do an intake and get help with tenant repair forms. I’ll work with them to prepare and submit the form, or they have a neighbor or friend submit it on their behalf. The tenant repair form requires that maintenance come out and fix the issue within 28 days.

Richmond has one of the highest eviction rates in the country. As a resident of Richmond, in your experience, what would you say contributes to this issue?

I think the eviction rates are so high because of lack of jobs and low wages. A lot of people don’t have an education, so they can’t go out and get the job they need. If they do have a job, it usually doesn’t pay enough for them to provide for their family or housing expenses.

For people in a tight situation, they must decide between paying for rent this month or buying their kids food or buying medicine they need. So, you have to pick and choose what situation is more important for you. And, every time you do get a raise, your rent just goes up and there isn’t a way for you to try to save money and get ahead. Also, housing that is supposedly affordable like the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority (RRHA) is not really affordable. If someone has no income, how can they afford to pay $50 for rent on top of a utility bill? If you can’t pay rent for one month, the bills just keep adding up. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected tenants in Richmond? How have you helped to advocate and organize around addressing housing instability?

It has affected tenants because most of them have lost their jobs and their means of income. With schools and daycares closed, they are in a tight situation because they have no one to help them take care of their families. I have been partnering with the community welfare office and we have hired over 70 RRHA residents to help with the office’s virtual school project. Through this project, we go door to door visiting people to make sure that their kids have working computers, school supplies, and to check in on other needs like groceries. We also hand out flyers with QR codes that residents can scan to see where the nearest food bank is located.

What lessons have you learned during your advocacy experience? What insights would you share with future advocates?  

I learned my rights. I’m no longer afraid to stand up and fight for myself and teach others their rights.

I would tell future advocates to just be prepared for the fight and for the long haul, because it is a fight and you will get a lot of attitude and you need to be ready for it. You also have to get people to trust you. Because they have been misled and mistreated for so long, it’s hard to get to them to trust you. You have to be able to provide them with the resources that they actually need and just show that you are there to help.

I learned my rights. I’m no longer afraid to stand up and fight for myself and teach others their rights.

What would be your call to action when it comes improving housing instability? If you could ask readers to take one action, what would it be?  

I think if landlords could keep up with maintenance it would help a whole lot. We know that after a certain amount of years, you need to come in and do maintenance with new paint jobs, piping, and windows. Also, they need to hire people who love their job and aren’t just looking at this as a paycheck. They need to care about the living conditions even if they don’t live there… they need to hire people who have a passion for the people.

Visit here to learn more about our Housing Justice Program participants and how they are keeping thousands of Richmond residents safely in their homes during the pandemic.

The Housing Justice Program is funded by The JPB Foundation and Equal Justice Works.

 

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow