Preventing Evictions and Increasing Protections for Tenants in Virginia: The Story of the Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program

/ Blog Post

By Hana Hausnerova, director of public programs, and Arthur Smith, program coordinator at Equal Justice Works

Evictions cause millions of families across the United States to lose their home, their belongings, their stability, and their community. The deck is stacked against low-income families facing eviction: approximately 99% of tenants go to court without a lawyer/legal representation in eviction proceedings and will likely lose their case. By contrast, most landlords in housing cases have representation—only 4% are unrepresented. This power imbalance results in devastating consequences for tenants, such as job loss, physical and mental health issues, and the disruption of education for school-age children.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have heightened the level of uncertainty and despair for families, disproportionately harming low-income women and families, especially poor women of color. With 40 million people currently experiencing housing instability, lawyers play a critical role in helping families with eviction defense, housing code violations, unlawful rent increases, and other legal needs that prevent families from securing safe and affordable housing. When fully represented, tenants win or settle their cases 96% of the time, and are almost twice as likely to stay in their homes as those without representation.

The Housing Justice Program was designed to disrupt the vicious cycle of evictions and housing instability in low-income communities in Richmond, Virginia. This program responds to intersecting crises in the city: epidemic levels of eviction among low-income renters, a critical shortage of legal aid attorneys available to defend against evictions, a deeply entrenched legacy of disenfranchisement and displacement of Black residents, and systemic racism that has perpetuated cycles of poverty and eviction.

Photo of the Housing Justice Program members. Top row (L-R): Omari Al-Qadaffi, Morgan Colonna, Daryl Hayott, Palmer Heenan. Bottom row (L-R): Lafonda Page, Louisa Rich, Kateland Woodcock, Laura Wright.

The Housing Justice Program mobilizes legal Fellows and Community Organizers to help fight evictions. Our Fellows work with leading legal services organizations to address housing instability at the individual, community, and systemic levels. Working together, the lawyers and organizers uncover patterns of exploitation and oppression. They build deep relationships in the community and help tenants assert their rights. They provide representation to tenants who would otherwise face eviction proceedings on their own, engage in high impact litigation to stop predatory landlords, mobilize tenants to demand systemic change, and advocate for policies and practices that protect and advance the rights of tenants.

Mobilizing Fellows and organizers as a group, a cohort, affords them the opportunity to work together, share resources, apply pressure to state and local governments, and provide resources in a coordinated manner. As a result of their collaboration, their collective impact has been unprecedented. Since June 2019, program participants have:

  • Opened 1,077 legal cases on housing matters including evictions, unlawful detainers, illegal lockouts, voucher retention, and other matters
  • Produced successful outcomes for more than 3,100 tenants, including families with children who were able to avoid eviction
  • Coordinated an advocacy campaign resulting in an eviction freeze by the Richmond Housing Authority for more than 2,000 residents in public housing
  • Saved $310,000 for low-income families in rent relief and fee waivers, back payment in rent, and other costs

“In 2019, the idea of a right to counsel in Virginia was inconceivable. Yet now, a year later, the landscape has completely shifted,” said Laura Wright, 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow. “Thanks to the work of Omari, LaFonda, and other advocates [in the program], we have a fast-growing tenant organizing infrastructure in Virginia. The ground is fertile for more tenant activism, we just need an infusion of resources to keep the momentum going.”

In 2019, the idea of a right to counsel in Virginia was inconceivable. Yet now, a year later, the landscape has completely shifted.

Laura Wright /
2019 Fellow
Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program

Since 1993, Equal Justice Works has mobilized more than 147 housing legal Fellows, advocates, and organizers to increase housing stability for low-income communities around the country. Our program participants have:

  • Assisted almost 10,000 low-income residents experiencing housing instability in Georgia and Virginia
  • Preserved and improved nearly 40,000 units of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assisted housing
  • Built capacity at 43 nonprofit organizations for housing justice work
  • Trained over 16,000 organization staff and volunteers on critical housing issues

Our passionate public leaders have made sustainable contributions to the legal services infrastructure by promoting strong collaboration among host organizations, improving ways of working, cultivating civic and political will, and building the leadership needed to make change happen.

Read more stories about the work of our Fellows 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