Teaming Up to Address the Housing Crisis in Richmond

Photo of Louisa Rich

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.

Photo of Laura Wright

By Laura Wright, 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by Virginia Poverty Law Center

When the pandemic hit, Julia* was living in a mobile home in rural Central Virginia, where she provided part-time care for her elderly mother and infant grandchild. Julia suddenly found herself without work and struggled to make ends meet. A few days after failing to make rent, her landlord showed up at her home and threw a sloppily written eviction notice at her. Her landlord then shut off her water and padlocked the water meter. Without access to water, Julia was unable to take basic health precautions to avoid getting herself, her elderly mother, and infant grandchild sick. Her landlord showed up every day for the next three days to harass her and demand rent payment. At one point, he threatened to set fire to her truck, which, as a delivery driver, is her sole means of income. She was so scared that he would show up unannounced that she spent an entire sleepless night in the truck.

Unfortunately, Julia’s story is not unique. During the pandemic, hundreds if not thousands of tenants across Virginia have experienced similar attempts by landlords to threaten, harass, and intimidate tenants to move out despite, and often in a blatant disregard for, COVID-19 protections in place. Tenants who do not know about the protections or do not have the organizing or legal support to give them confidence to assert their rights are still being evicted in the middle of pandemic, even if they qualify for eviction protections.

When I spoke to Julia the following day, she was run ragged with nerves. I was able to inform her of her rights, walk her through the steps to file a “Tenant’s Petition for Relief from Unlawful Exclusion” once the courts opened back up, and instruct her on what to do should if  the landlord show up again. Sure enough, the landlord did return to her home over the weekend to harass her and demand payment. This time, she felt confident to stand up for herself and demanded that he leave. She then called the police, and with me on the phone to help explain the situation, the landlord reluctantly reconnected her water.

Julia’s experience highlights the difference an attorney can make in a tenant’s livelihood and how the need for guaranteed legal representation in eviction cases has only become more urgent with the COVID-19 pandemic. The quickly shifting landscape of tenant protections, many of which are temporary and all of which require specific action on the part of the tenant, are confusing to navigate and even more difficult to enforce without counsel. The inconsistent enforcement of COVID-19 eviction protections has demonstrated that a right is only as good as your ability to enforce it.

The inconsistent enforcement of COVID-19 eviction protections has demonstrated that a right is only as good as your ability to enforce it.

Without the assistance of an attorney, Julia would not have known about the eviction protections and legal recourse available to her and would have continued to face harassment from her landlord. Because an attorney intervened and helped Julia to assert her rights, Julia’s situation resolved without ever appearing in court. It will take time for Julia to get back on her feet, but for now, she has secured a safe place to live, free of that landlord’s threats.

We have yet to see the full economic fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic. If past disasters are any indication, families will continue to struggle financially and experience disruptive displacement for years to come. The way forward requires policies directed at keeping people housed, as well as deep investment in legal representation for tenants at risk of eviction and for homeowners on the brink of losing their home.

The way forward requires policies directed at keeping people housed, as well as deep investment in legal representation for tenants at risk of eviction and for homeowners on the brink of losing their home.

*Name changed to protect privacy of the client

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.

Headshot of Morgan-Colonna
Photo of Morgan Colonna

By Morgan Colonna, 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

Historically, housing policies in the United States have contributed to social inequality and residential segregation in our country. This is certainly true in Richmond, Virginia, which has a long history of racial segregation in housing.

When the Fair Housing Act made racially restrictive covenants in real estate illegal, Richmond found other ways to break up and isolate the city’s black community. Construction of I-95—the nation’s longest north-south interstate highway—through the heart of the Black community, and the concentrated construction of five public housing communities within one mile of each other in the East End of Richmond, are two examples of ways in which Richmond’s urban renewal policy led to clustering low-income persons, who were mostly Black, in the center of Richmond.

Today, low-income families in Richmond’s East End still face substandard housing, higher rates of poverty, and fewer resources for health promotion than other neighborhoods in the city.

Studies show there is an inextricable link between housing and health. Additionally, studies show, disparities exist in health across socioeconomic groups as low-income families are more likely to experience unhealthy and unsafe housing conditions and are also the least likely to be able to address them. Researchers have specifically identified housing stability, quality, safety, affordability, and the physical and social characteristics of neighborhoods as factors that directly impact a person’s health.

A person who lacks safe, stable housing is also less likely to have a usual source of medical care and more likely to postpone needed treatment or go without prescribed medications. Housing issues have been linked to increased mortality, trauma, depression, anxiety, physical health morbidity, increased hospitalizations, food insecurity, risk of teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, suicide, and health care expenditures, as well as disruptions to employment, social networks, education, and receipt of social service benefits.

Medical-legal partnerships (MLPs) provide one approach to addressing some of the most complex needs affecting health, including housing issues, by adding lawyers to a person’s health care team to address social issues rooted in legal problems. At VCU Health in Richmond, Virginia, I am a part of the health care team within my designated clinics, serving low-income patients within the hospital and in a community health clinic in Richmond’s East End. Doctors, nurses, and social workers screen their patients for potential legal issues and refer the patient to me in the same way they would refer a patient to any subspecialty. From there, I step in to help patients resolve legal issues which have a direct impact on their health.

Within the housing realm, improving substandard conditions, preventing eviction, and protecting against utility shut-offs helps to ensure a patient stays housed in a healthy physical environment. Ensuring a patient has a stable, decent, affordable home also helps avoid costly emergency room visits related to homelessness, and consistent utilities help patients follow medical treatment plans.

Ensuring a patient has a stable, decent, affordable home also helps avoid costly emergency room visits related to homelessness, and consistent utilities help patients follow medical treatment plans.

I recently referred a patient who depends upon daily insulin and breathing treatments. Her landlord disconnected her utilities and was threatening to evict her due to non-payment of rent. Once I received her case, I was able to work with the state’s rent relief program to obtain rental assistance for the patient and prevent the eviction. I also worked with city officials and the landlord to reconnect the utilities within the same day. In addition to preventing an eviction, we restored this patient’s access to necessary medical treatments and medications within her home.

This is just one example of how the MLP works to identify and address social issues that directly impact health. Although this partnership does not erase Richmond’s history, the MLP is making strides in addressing some of the structural problems at the root of many health inequities that still exist because of Richmond’s history of segregation and housing discrimination.

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.

Home should be a safe place. For a group of tenants living at the Woods of Savannah, a Project-Based Section 8 housing complex for individuals who are at least 62 years old or have disabilities, the experience was anything but safe and decent.

The tenants, three single African American women with disabilities, faced repeated instances of racial harassment while living at the complex—white tenants, for example, would use their dogs to threaten the women and block their access to common areas. The women endured racial slurs, physical threats, stalking, harassment at work, and being the subject of false police reports.

Unsafe, dehumanized, and wanting the abuse to end, the women submitted dozens of complaints to the property management but were ignored. The property management refused to investigate these allegations and threatened the women with eviction if they did not stop filing complaints.

Photo of Allison Slagowitz (left) at a 2019 Georgia Housing Corps training event

Under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord can be held liable for tenant-on-tenant race-based harassment when the landlord knew or should have known about the discriminatory conduct and failed to take prompt, reasonable action. Alison Slagowitz, a 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Georgia Housing Corps who is hosted by Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP), took the case to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), submitting Fair Housing Act complaints for each client. She provided HUD with a detailed investigation report, including timelines of major incidents of harassment and documentary evidence.

Thanks to Alison’s incredible work, the parties reached a settlement through HUD’s conciliation process that provided financial compensation to the three clients and others affected by the hostile environment. Additionally, the property management was required to implement annual mandatory employee trainings on anti-discrimination laws and trainings for residents on diversity and inclusion.

“GLSP is very proud of the work that Alison is doing in Savannah,” said Georgia Legal Services Program Executive Director Rick Rufolo. “She is a fearless advocate and constantly looks for ways to break barriers and help protect the rights of vulnerable populations, including ex-offenders and people of color.”

Following her Fellowship, Alison plans to stay on with GLSP as a staff attorney, continuing her work to fight for housing stability and security in the private and public sectors. She was recently selected to join the Shriver Center on Poverty Law Racial Justice Institute, where she will use her legal background to advocate for and with people who are most impacted by injustice in the housing system.

To learn more about Alison’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile. The Georgia Housing Corps is supported by the Georgia Bar Foundation.

Alison is a fearless advocate and constantly looks for ways to break barriers and help protect the rights of vulnerable populations, including ex-offenders and people of color.

Rick Rufolo /
Executive Director
Georgia Legal Services Program

By Farley Ezekiel, 2017 Georgia Housing Corps Fellow, hosted by Atlanta Legal Aid Society

Photo of Farley Ezekiel (left) and a colleague

The first time I attended dispossessory court, also known as eviction court, in Clayton County, Georgia, it was as a volunteer for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. The experience was eye-opening and made me acutely aware of the critical need for tenants’ rights advocacy.

The court calendar in Clayton County can have as many as 160 cases on it, which means that not everyone can fit in the courtroom. When seating inevitably runs out, tenants are told to stand shoulder to shoulder in multiple rows. With so many people crammed inside the courtroom, it can be very chaotic and difficult to hear the calendar call. If a tenant is late or does not respond when their name is called, their Answer will be stricken and their landlord will immediately receive a writ of possession. Even if the tenant shows up, they are only entitled to seven days before the landlord can get the sheriffs to execute the writ of possession to have the tenant removed from their home. The landlord attorneys sit at tables in the front of the courtroom ready to process dozens of cases throughout the morning. More often than not, there isn’t a single attorney in the court to represent tenants.

When the Georgia Housing Corps was formed, one of the available Fellowships was located in Clayton County. After my volunteer experience, I knew I wanted to be part of the effort to bring more attention and legal services to tenants in this area. Without representation or advice from an attorney, many tenants do not realize they may have legal defenses that could keep them in their homes.

My project focuses on representing tenants in dispossessory court and providing legal advice to the tenants who I am unable to represent directly. I spend three days a week in the courthouse, which means I am available to meet with tenants when they come to the courthouse to file an Answer. Having space in the courthouse makes a huge difference because tenants can walk straight into my office and receive immediate assistance.

A few months ago, I started noticing significant issues with the service in dispossessory cases. The most common method of service is for the sheriff to tack a copy of the dispossessory action to the tenant’s door, and then the sheriff is expected to mail a copy of the dispossessory action the same day. Following this procedure is critical because a tenant only has seven days to file an Answer after a sheriff serves them. If the tenant fails to file an Answer, they default on the case, and their landlord can get an immediate writ of possession.

While interviewing tenants, I realized that many sheriffs were not properly serving them. As a result, I was able to get several dispossessories dismissed. Our wins resulted in a judge who commonly hears dispossessory cases to ask the serving deputy why procedures weren’t being followed. After this, we stopped seeing issues with service. By having an attorney focused on tenant rights, we were able to identify the issue with service and hold sheriffs accountable.

Through the work of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the Georgia Housing Corps, we now have an attorney present to represent tenants at almost every single dispossessory calendar in Clayton County. Tenants are more likely to avoid an eviction with the presence of an attorney.

Safe and stable housing provides the foundation for many other aspects of our lives—education, employment, and community, to name a few. Eviction can cause a family to become homeless or live in extended-stay hotels. Unstable housing makes it difficult to keep children in school and maintain steady employment consistently. It becomes a vicious cycle. My work interrupts the cycle by educating tenants of their rights and preventing evictions through litigation.

The Georgia Housing Corps is supported by the Georgia Bar Foundation. To learn more about Farley and her Fellowship, view her profile.

Through the work of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the Georgia Housing Corps, we now have an attorney present to represent tenants at almost every single dispossessory calendar in Clayton County.

Farley Ezekiel /
Equal Justice Works Georgia Housing Corps Fellow

Photo of Georgia Housing Corps Fellows and Community Advocates

Housing plays a fundamental role in the well-being of children, families, and communities. Our Georgia Housing Corps (GHC) Fellows and Community Advocates work at legal services organizations throughout the state of Georgia to help deliver holistic legal aid to residents affected by the foreclosure crisis.

In the second half of the program’s first year*, GHC Fellows and Community Advocates made remarkable progress in implementing groundbreaking legal housing assistance throughout the state of Georgia. Collectively, GHC Fellows and Community Advocates took 762 legal cases or matters and provided advice and brief service to 529 individuals.

Working together, Fellow Erik Provitt and Community Advocate Shameka Dixon, at Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), helped a client living in income-based housing to dismiss several evictions filed against her, and establish a rental payment plan with housing management.

Crystal Redd, another Fellow at AVLF, represented a tenant who was accused of lease violations and combative interactions with housing management, but lacked the resources to move or locate other housing. Through intense negotiations, Crystal was able to keep the tenant in her home, and both parties were able to establish a professional relationship based on mutual respect. Crystal’s client credits this accomplishment to having a trusted advocate speak to management on her behalf.

At Atlanta Legal Aid, Fellow Farley Ezekiel represented several clients whose landlords were pursuing writs of possession against them. In one case, Farley was able to file an emergency motion to stay the writ, allowing her client to go to a job interview the same day as the originally scheduled eviction, confident that the sheriff would not dump her belongings on the street. Following the filing, the client was able to secure the job, and Farley managed to get the writ of possession permanently quashed.

Without access to legal assistance, many individuals are often unaware of their rights and protections under the law. GHC Fellows and Community Advocates are bringing high-quality legal services to those in need, and their stories illustrate the lasting impact of the program on individuals and communities throughout Georgia.

The Georgia Housing Corps is supported by the Georgia Bar Foundation. Learn more about the GHC Fellows who are working to improve housing outcomes for residents in Georgia.

* April 1 to September 30, 2018 reporting period

The Georgia Housing Corps will mobilize eleven lawyers and seven community advocates to provide critical civil legal aid to low income residents in the state of Georgia to secure safe, stable, affordable housing.

Equal Justice Works, the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, today announced the launch of the Georgia Housing Corps (GHC), a new Fellowship program addressing barriers to housing stability in rural and urban communities in Georgia.

“We are thrilled that the Georgia Housing Corps will help ensure that underserved families have the safe, stable housing they need to live and thrive in their communities,” said David Stern, Executive Director at Equal Justice Works. “Housing plays a critical role in the health and well-being of families and its importance cannot be overstated.”

Sponsored by the Georgia Bar Foundation, these eleven Fellows and seven Community Advocates will provide a combination of services including client representation on housing and housing-related issues, community outreach and education to community members and property owners, and advocacy to remove systemic barriers to housing at the local and statewide levels.

“Affordable housing empowers families and is key to strengthening communities,” said Len Horton, executive director at the Georgia Bar Foundation. “We are proud to support the Equal Justice Works Georgia Housing Corps initiative, which will provide greater access to legal counsel for low-income residents to obtain safe and secure homes.”

Over the past three decades, Equal Justice Works has awarded more than 2,000 Fellowships to public interest lawyers committed to building a more just society. Roughly 85 percent of Fellows continue to serve the public interest beyond their Fellowships.

Click here to learn more about the program participants.

Affordable housing empowers families and is key to strengthening communities. We are proud to support the Equal Justice Works Georgia Housing Corps initiative, which will provide greater access to legal counsel for low-income residents to obtain safe and secure homes.

Len Horton /
Executive Director, Georgia Bar Foundation