/ Blog Post
By Louisa Rich, 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by Legal Aid Justice Center
I began my work at Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) tackling the school-to-prison pipeline; however, facing a number of emergency eviction cases, I soon started taking on eviction cases, too. At the time, our Richmond office only had one full-time housing attorney and no community organizers to focus on housing issues. When The New York Times featured Richmond on a front-page story about evictions and how the city was ranked the second worst eviction city among major U.S. cities, I could not help but notice the connection between housing instability and education outcomes. Many clients were coming to me with school enrollment problems because within a single year, the family may have moved as many as five times due to displacement and housing instability.
There are huge racial disparities in who faces the most severe housing instability. Richmond’s history of segregation, discrimination, and racism continues to reverberate today, and high eviction rates are disproportionately found in minority communities that were historically redlined, with more than 60% of all majority African American tracts facing eviction rates greater than 10%.
Housing was a racial justice problem I could not ignore when I first began my work at LAJC. Luckily, there are two other legal aid organizations in Richmond focused on individual client representation: while LAJC focuses on systems change, Central Virginia Legal Aid Society (CVLAS) takes on the bulk of individual representation, and Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) acts as a call center for free, quick, eviction advice for tenants and a legal education resource for other lawyers. Even so, there were simply not enough attorneys at these two organizations to meet the need, and cases spilled over to our office. Despite our limited capacity, we did not want to turn people away from necessary services.
Then, LAJC received Equal Justice Works funding as part of the Housing Justice Program. Working across the three organizations—LAJC, CVLAS, and VPLC—the six housing attorneys, called Fellows, and two Community Organizers in the Housing Justice Program are able to focus specifically on addressing housing instability in the Greater Richmond Region. I jumped on the opportunity to join.
Since the implementation of the Housing Justice Program, the three organizations have been collaborating much more closely and strategically, and the impact so far is almost too great to list. About a year and a half in, we have already achieved a yearlong eviction freeze for our local public housing authority—historically one of the highest evictors in Richmond, affecting a disproportionately Black population with high numbers of seniors and women with children.
Our program relied on fair housing arguments to combat the demolition of public housing. We also used fair housing as a backdrop to prevent a major gentrification project that would have resulted in tearing down the homes of low-income residents in favor of a sports stadium. And, we passed a new protection for “source of income discrimination” in Virginia, which prevents private landlords from arbitrarily refusing voucher holders, who are also disproportionately Black and/or women with children.
Over the last year and a half, we’ve been working closely with Richmond residents to ensure that their rights to reasonable accommodations under fair housing for people with disabilities are being enforced. This includes, but is not limited to, reducing utility bills for people with medical needs, forgiving late fees for people who receive disability checks in the middle of the month, increasing the number of bedrooms for subsidized tenants with live-in aides, and ensuring units are accessible for physical disabilities. We also fought back against fees per household member that discriminated against large families, as well as other policies that disfavored children.
I hope this work can continue, and I am excited to see what the future holds for housing justice in Richmond and beyond.
Visit here to 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.