Standing Up for Tenants, Close to Home

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Omari al-Qadaffi is a 2019 Community Organizer with the Housing Justice Program, hosted at the Legal Aid Justice Center

Photo of Omari al-Qadaffi

Despite its relatively small population, Richmond, Virginia, has the second highest rate of eviction among large cities in the United States. Between poverty, high rates of unemployment, 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.

In 2019, Equal Justice Works established the Housing Justice Program, a dedicated corps of six Fellows and two Community Organizers working as a united front to serve low-income individuals who are currently, or at risk of, experiencing housing instability and involuntary displacement in the Greater Richmond Area.

When a problem is as severe as Richmond’s eviction crisis, it’s nearly impossible for lawyers to find time for effective outreach within high-risk communities—that’s where our Community Organizers come in. By all accounts, Omari al-Qadaffi was made for the role.

Omari had been organizing in Richmond for a number of years prior to joining the Housing Justice Program, and was already well aware of the challenges his neighbors faced. His role as a Community Organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center has been crucial to bridging the service gap between Housing Justice Program Fellows and tenants, particularly those unfamiliar with accessing legal services.

“Through my work, I’ve learned that a large number of my community members did not know their rights and did not have access to legal representation. Many outside attorneys struggle to access the community, and I knew I could help,” he observed. “When the position was announced, literally twelve to fifteen people forwarded me the application and said, ‘this has to be you.’”

In addition to tangible outcomes for Richmond residents, Omari’s work has also presented an important opportunity for tenants’ voices and experiences to be heard. “One thing that every lawyer should know is that there is something to learn from every person they meet,” he said. “I think attorneys in our society are elevated to a level of prestige, and a lot of times they see themselves as ‘the experts.’ However, everyone is an expert in their own lived experience.”

His colleagues agree: “Our Community Organizers have shown me the importance of being present in the community,” said Fellow Louisa Rich, also hosted at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “It is essential that the community can see my face outside of the law office, so that they have trust in us.”

Just months into the program, the Housing Justice Program secured a major victory in the form of an eviction freeze, barring the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority (RRHA) from filing or completing any evictions through the end of 2019. “This eviction freeze is especially meaningful right now to rent-burdened families as we enter the cold winter months,” noted Omari, back in December. In January 2020, the freeze was extended through May 1, providing Richmond’s tenants with some much-needed relief.

Learn more about the Housing Justice Program here.

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

Many outside attorneys struggle to access the community, and I knew I could help.

Omari al-Qadaffi /
Housing Justice Program Community Organizer

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow