Six Things Every Public Interest Lawyer Should Know About Housing Work

/ Blog Post

Photo of Kateland Alan Woodcock (left) and Louisa Rich (right)

Without access to safe and stable housing, individuals and families face a variety of adverse outcomes, including long-lasting and devastating economic hardships and health problems. The city of Richmond, Virginia has the second highest eviction rate in the country, three to four times the national average. In 2017 alone, residents faced more than 17,000 evictions.

Equal Justice Works Fellows and Community Organizers working in the Housing Justice Program serve low-income individuals residing in the Greater Richmond Region of Virginia who are currently, or at risk of, experiencing housing instability and involuntary displacement. During their time in the field, the Fellows and Community Organizers have learned a wide range of lessons regarding housing advocacy.

We spoke with Fellows Kateland Alan Woodcock and Louisa Rich to hear some of their biggest takeaways from their first six months working as full-time housing attorneys in Richmond.

Lesson 1: Housing cases move FAST

From start to finish, a case could be done in two months. You also get a lot of emergency cases, like a client being evicted the next morning. You have to move fast to prepare a motion, find a judge who will listen to you, and defend your client.

“You don’t have time to sit and think about theories when time is of the essence. Before you know it, it’s been a month, and someone is evicted. It’s essential to keep track of your time and make sure you are not sitting on a case for long,” advised Kateland.

Lesson 2: Housing issues go beyond eviction cases

When people hear the phrase “housing issues”, they might assume it is synonymous for eviction. While eviction is a type of housing issue, it’s far from the only one. From landlord-tenant relations to inadequate repairs, housing is a broad umbrella term for any social problems that arise from the housing crisis. In Virginia, many other issues, such as lack of affordable housing, lie at the core of the eviction crisis.

“We have a team dedicated to issues surrounding housing affordability,” said Louisa. “Currently, they are working on a campaign to see how the city’s development plan will impact housing affordability and if there are any legal implications to their decision.”

Lesson 3: Don’t assume your clients fully understand their rights

Your client might not be aware of things you may expect them to know, like when their lease ends, or who is responsible for utilities. Housing issues are complicated, and that’s why having access to legal aid is so important. A lawyer needs to educate the community on these complex and intricate issues.

“Sometimes lawyers talk in a way where our clients will be like, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t understand this.’ I have to step back and think of how I can present the information in a way that is not legalese. Communication is key to our clients being able to understand the information, process it, and make decisions based off of it,” said Kateland.

Lesson 4: If the client didn’t pay their rent, there still might be a defense

Most people assume that if someone owes $1,000 in rent, there’s no defense. That’s not always true. Often, landlords might not have fixed things on time or given proper notice of the eviction, for example, which could constitute a valid reason for non-payment of rent.

“In most of my non-payment rent cases, I make defenses that don’t even deal with the issue of if they have paid,” Louisa shared.

Lesson 5: It’s easy to become emotionally invested

When you think of gripping legal issues, you might think of domestic violence or human trafficking. You’d be surprised how easy it is to become emotionally invested in housing cases.

“Once you see nasty and dangerous mold growing in someone’s AC unit—you’ll be shocked at how that makes you feel,” said Kateland. “I remember being so angry at a landlord who wouldn’t fix a mold issue, didn’t care about fixing it, and spent months not fixing it. I had to take a step back and remind myself to look at the situation objectively so that I could get the best result for my client.”

Lesson 6: Housing issues usually stem from bigger problems

There is a strong intersection between housing issues and other issues that people deal with in life (such as mental health, physical health, education, and employment). Your clients might have other issues going on, like a lack of access to employment opportunities or VA benefits, that will impact their ability to deal with housing issues.

“It’s important to look at the broader picture and see how you can connect them to other resources. The goal should be to provide as holistic of legal aid as possible,” advised Louisa.

To learn more about Kateland and Louisa’s projects, along with the work of all the other Housing Justice Program Fellows, click here.

The Housing Justice Program is made possible thanks to the generosity of The JPB Foundation.

I have to step back and think of how I can present the information in a way that is not legalese. Communication is key to our clients being able to understand the information, process it, and make decisions based off of it.

Kateland Alan Woodcock /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow