Author Archive

Welcome to LAJC’s New Staff!

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As we grow our work, we have also been growing our team! Welcome to our new staff members who have started work with us so far in 2021 – you can read more about them here: 

Chris joined Legal Aid Justice Center in February 2021. Prior to joining LAJC, Chris worked as an IT consultant and administrator with local non-profits, supporting a variety of operational and programmatic needs. Prior to moving to Charlottesville in 2017, Chris served as the Manager of Digital Learning for Aspire Public Schools in Memphis, TN. In that role, Chris worked with teachers and administrators to ensure all students had opportunities to pursue their goals, leveraging individualized technology programs that fostered confidence and skill-acquisition. Outside of LAJC, Chris is a mentor for 6th-12th grade youth who enjoy learning new skills such as game design and coding. Chris graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education from Western Washington University and a master’s degree in educational technology from Boise State University.

Miguel Tejero was born in Temuco, Chile. Since very young, he played the violin. At 17 years old, he moved to Santiago to enroll in the University of Chile where he obtained his music and art degree, while at the same time a member of the Chile Symphony Orchestra. During the following years, he played in countless award-winning music ensembles, string quartets, and orchestras at the local and international levels. Miguel received a scholarship at Loyola University in New Orleans and graduated with his B.A. in Music. Later, he moved to Houston, TX where he mostly worked as a session violinist. In 2014, he settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia. He is a certified medical interpreter and worked for SVCHS and Ballad hospitals, helping particularly the Hispanic community in the area. He is also NASM and an ISSA trainer and current volunteer in the Cancer Center at JMC in Abingdon, VA. Miguel is a nature and animal lover. He owns Tres Carabela Ranch where, among other things, he works rescuing Great Pyrenees all over the U.S. in cooperation with National Great Pyrenees Rescue. In the last few years, he has taken an active role in advocating for minority groups, inequality, and discrimination. Miguel is very proud to join LAJC and he is determined to make the Southwest Virginia community relevant.

June Yang joined Legal Aid Justice Center in February 2021. She brings more than a decade of experience in grant writing and nonprofit resource development across a wide range of sectors, most recently in Washington, D.C. Prior to LAJC, she directed fundraising strategy as Director of Development for the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital and led grants strategy as Grants Officer for Public Justice, a national legal advocacy organization. She also serves on the Advisory Committee of the Arts Forward Fund, which supports arts organizations in the D.C. region as they respond to COVID-19 and advance the movement for racial justice and equity. In addition to working in development, June writes fiction and freelance journalism and is a past recipient of the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction. June holds a B.A. in Semiotics from Brown University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Houston.

Jess joined Legal Aid Justice Center as the Executive Assistant in 2021. She joined the LAJC team with over ten years of administrative and management experience and has been an active member of the Charlottesville community since moving here in 2015. Jess received her B.S. in Marketing and Management from the University of Mary Washington.

Teresa joined the Civil Rights & Racial Justice Program at LAJC in Spring 2021. She worked as a public defender in New Hampshire for about three and a half years before coming to LAJC. During her time there, she witnessed the heartlessness of the police and prosecutors who refused to see people as human beings, which inspired her to work toward transferring power from the criminal legal system to the people. Teresa earned her B.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park and her M.A. in Humanities from the University of Chicago. She earned her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law where she was a student in the Housing Law Clinic at LAJC and received the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Award.

Christopher Rashad Green’s story is one of redemption and hope! Joining the LAJC Team in April of 2021, Christopher brings a wealth of organizing knowledge and experience. As a formerly incarcerated individual of 15 years, he has been blessed to share his testimony of resilience and empowerment. Coming from New Virginia Majority, Christopher has lead several campaigns and initiatives around such issues as the automatic right-to-vote for returning citizens through a constitutional amendment campaign, a court-watch initiative (Court Watch of Central Virginia CWCVA), addressing unfair and discriminatory processes in our courts, and as a community researcher with Virginia Commonwealth University in addressing the social determinants to good health. Through community service and activism, and being blessed with the gift of discernment and empathy, he has been able to articulate distinctly, emotional experiences in the criminal system. Also, among his works, he has taught at various workshops, programs, and panel discussions dealing with such topics as mass incarceration, prison reform, social justice, health equity. disenfranchisement, and education. Christopher continues to advocate for the rights of a better life for all individuals. No matter what race, religion, or ethnicity. And as he has stated many times before, “I’m not a Community Activist, I’m a Brother Striving to stay Active in Our Communities!” The Walk on this Path of Redemption continues!

Lucy grew up in the rural Shenandoah Valley but has spent time living in New York City, Charlotte, and Atlanta. They are currently located in Richmond. Lucy has worked in communications, community organizing, and youth development and has been part of campaigns around everything from student debt to prison justice to funding public colleges to immigrant rights to climate justice to union membership to LGBTQ+ rights. They hold an individualized study degree in writing and social change and are especially passionate about the power of storytelling to create change. Most recently Lucy worked with the Alliance for Climate Education and prior to that worked at the YMCA of Greater New York. Lucy is an avid outdoorsperson and completed a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2019.

Frank joined the Legal Aid Justice Center in the Summer of 2021 as a Youth Justice Program Organizer. Originally from Houston, Texas, he graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Global Development Studies. During his undergraduate career, he served as the Co-President of the UVA chapter of Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society (PLUMAS), interned with the LAJC Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers, and also interned with the VA Youth Solidarity for Immigrant/Migrant Workers initiative.

Sandra joined Legal Aid Justice Center in 2021. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, Sandra is a native speaker of both French and Swahili. Before joining LAJC, she worked with Resilience Education, in partnership with Virginia Department of Corrections managing a program that facilitated Business and Entrepreneurship education of incarcerated individuals, helping reduce recidivism and improving employment success. Following her time with Resilience Education, she provided administrative support for International Neighbors where she guided newly resettled refugees as they began their lives in Charlottesville. Sandra graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a double degree in Political Science and Psychology.

Public Comments on RRHA Redevelopment Plan

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On Friday, July 2nd, the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) and the Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) submitted joint public comment on the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority (RRHA) Annual Agency Plan opposing significant aspects of the plan.

Our key concern is that the plan will decrease the amount of deeply subsidized housing units in Richmond, disproportionately impacting people of color. RRHA currently plans to redevelop all of its public housing communities, converting 100% low-income developments such as Creighton Court into mixed-income communities. Without one-for-one replacement, this will greatly lessen the number of units affordable to the lowest-income bracket of renters. RRHA’s own agency plan states that there are over 11,000 families on its public housing waiting list, 82.4% of whom are extremely low-income and 88% of families on the wait list are Black.

LAJC and VPLC are requesting that RRHA adopt one-for-one replacement in its redevelopment plans, which means that for every unit of deeply subsidized housing demolished, another would be built.

RRHA’s primary solution for those tenants being displaced by redevelopment activities is to provide vouchers for use with private landlords. While vouchers do allow flexibility that can be preferred by some renters, replacing actual deeply subsidized housing units with portable vouchers without also rebuilding actual subsidized homes remains problematic. Large landlords are no longer allowed to discriminate against voucher-holders because of recently passed Fair Housing laws, but smaller landlords, owning four or fewer units still can lawfully refuse to rent to voucher holders. Additionally, private landlords often have more stringent screening criteria, such as credit requirements, that keep low-income families out, limiting options. Voucher funding can also be reduced easily by the federal government while actual deeply subsidized units guarantee long term availability of housing that is affordable to renters with very low incomes.

The public comment also asks for changes in RRHA’s leasing and application policies, most notably the criminal background screening policies including updating the list of exclusionary offenses and only allowing RRHA to look at the past five years of a prospective tenant’s criminal record. The public comment asks for similar changes in RRHA’s voucher program, as its current screening rules exclude many applicants with criminal records that are eligible to receive vouchers under HUD regulations.

And since marijuana became legal on July 1st, 2021, LAJC and VPLC are requesting that marijuana be formally removed as grounds for lease termination. RRHA has already removed marijuana-related crimes from their criminal background screening denial list, but it’s unclear whether marijuana use could still result in a tenant having their lease terminated.

The groups also note that RRHA’s plan was developed with insufficient opportunities for tenants to have input. RRHA submitted the plan to its Board of Directors more than two weeks before the end of the written comment period. Additionally, RRHA failed to provide the legally required 45-days notice before the public hearing on the plan, giving people an insufficient amount of time to plan for the hearing.

You can read the text of the public comment left by LAJC and VPLC here.

LAJC Asks Northam to Extend Tenant Protections

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Today we at Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) and The Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) sent a letter to Governor Ralph Northam urging him to extend State of Emergency protections for tenants via executive order. Currently all of Virginia’s State of Emergency tenant protections are set to expire on June 30th, as-is the Center for Disease Contro’sl moratorium on evictions. Our request is for protections to be extended at least until the General Assembly meets, at which point they would be able to re-enact protections. 

When the protections for tenants expire landlords will no longer be required to give tenants notice of available rent relief, to apply for rent relief on behalf of their tenants, or to co-operate with tenant applications for rent relief. There will also no longer be a 45-day waiting period after either tenant or landlord applies for rent relief before landlords can proceed with eviction. 

Many Virginians are still financially struggling due to the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which could leave thousands at risk of eviction without extended protections. We need Governor Northam to take action to keep Virginians in their homes this summer. 

You can read the letter here.

Judge Orders VEC to Fix Issues at the Agency

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Judge Orders Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) to End Unemployment Insurance Backlog and Fix Issues at the Agency   

Legal Aid groups and their Pro Bono Partners will monitor the VEC’s progress to ensure Virginians who have been struggling, often for months, get access to the relief they are owed   

Richmond, VA – Today, Judge Henry Hudson, of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, signed an order detailing the steps now required of the VEC to end the backlog of unpaid unemployment insurance claims and to identify and pay Virginians whose benefits were improperly terminated while their cases awaited adjudication. These delays meant that claimants often waited many months, some even since the beginning of the pandemic last year, to receive this financial lifeline after losing their livelihood. Now, the VEC has been ordered to resolve substantially the entire backlog within the next 100 days. 

This order pauses the proposed class action lawsuit filed April 15 by the Legal Aid Justice Center, Legal Aid Works, and the Virginia Poverty Law Center, along with Consumer Litigation Associates, PC, and Kelly Guzzo, PLC, while the VEC works to implement these desperately needed reforms and upgrades.   

“I was cut off benefits, without information or a chance to fight for them, nine months ago. It’s beyond frustrating not to know what’s going on – and my daughter and I lost our apartment in the process. It’s time for Virginia to fix this. I’m glad that the court took action to order that Virginia act quickly to do so,” said Amber Dimmerling, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit.  

“For more than a year, we have heard daily from Virginians across the state who needed to get emergency help—often for the first time—and instead got delays,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, Attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Many Virginians did receive benefits, and we know that people at the VEC have been working hard during the pandemic.  Still, this lawsuit has been about getting more help for gaps in the system and the Virginians who desperately need it.  The steps ordered today are a hopeful sign that help is on the way.” 

“We appreciate the leadership of Judge Hudson, and the hard work put in by all sides—our public interest team as well as the VEC and the Administration—to reach this significant resolution and, as Judge Hudson demanded, “start getting checks to people as soon as possible,” said Leonard Bennet of Consumer Litigation Associates, P.C.  

The order will go into effect immediately and requires the VEC to: 

    • Ensure the elimination of the VEC adjudication backlog before September 6, 2021 (Labor Day). 
    • Accelerate the adjudication of claims to 10,000 cases weekly by July 1, 2021, and 20,000 cases weekly by August 1, 2021. 
    • Quickly and immediately process adjudications for many applicants who are covered by Pandemic Unemployment benefits but have had to first await adjudication. 
    • Identify and resume payments to those claimants who had been getting benefits but were improperly cut off. 
    • Require state identification and better coordination of various alternate housing, food, and income benefits available to applicants in financial difficulty. 
    • Subject the VEC’s new performance standards and deadlines to judicial supervision and require weekly information sharing to make that possible.  

While I am optimistic that the VEC will stand by their obligations in this lawsuit, and that benefits will be provided to Virginias in a reasonable time, we should never have had to wait this long in the first place. I am cautiously optimistic,” said Ashley Cox, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. 

“Scores of Virginians contacted our organization about their problems with VEC and how their financial situations were made worse by VEC’s inactions,” said Steven Fischbach, VPLC’s Litigation Director. “Thanks to Judge Hudson’s recognition of the need for immediate resolution of the issues raised by our lawsuit, thousands of Virginians will get relief and those entitled to unemployment benefits will get them much faster.” 

“We are in this for the long haul, hoping for fast, genuine action for our clients while holding VEC to the timeline that will rapidly resolve the backlog of so many desperate Virginia workers,” said Ann Kloeckner, Executive Director at Legal Aid Works. 

Getting to this point took the effort of countless Virginians who reached out to our organizations and other legal aid organizations; to our Pro Bono partners that helped bring this litigation; to other service organizations across the state; to their elected officials; to the VEC; and to the Governor—demanding change. We thank the named plaintiffs in this lawsuit for stepping forward to help so many others. We are grateful to see the Governor and VEC acknowledge the magnitude of these issues and recognize that patience is no longer an option for Virginians who have been waiting months for a chance at getting unemployment benefits to keep their families afloat. Lastly, we give special recognition to Judge Henry Hudson for so quickly acting to demand immediate improvements by the VEC.  

While this order is a significant step towards fixing a broken system, it does not address every issue identified by those who have contacted us seeking help. And while the timeline for relief provided is as aggressive as possible, we recognize that many Virginians are hurting right now. Our hope is that these measures bring relief as quickly as possible to those who continue to struggle to access the unemployment benefits they so desperately need.  

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The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) partners with communities and clients to achieve justice by dismantling systems that create and perpetuate poverty.  By justice, we mean racial, social, and economic justice.   

The Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) is the state support center for all civil legal aid programs in Virginia. VPLC’s work breaks down systemic barriers that keep low-income Virginians in the cycle of poverty through advocacy, education, and litigation.  

Legal Aid Works (LAW) champions fairness by advocating for those with the least access to the civil justice system. 

VEC Attempts to Delay Unemployment Lawsuit

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The Virginia Employment Commission Responds to Lawsuit About Delays in Unemployment Payments with…a Request to Delay.

 Despite having been fully informed about the issues detailed in the lawsuit more than six months ago, the VEC moves to put the case on hold for an extra month.

Richmond VA – Yesterday, the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) filed a motion to postpone their response to being served with a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of the hundreds of Virginians suffering severe hardships while waiting for the VEC to approve their unemployment insurance claims.

Despite knowing about these issues for months, and despite failing at meeting required benchmarks for resolving issues with claims for well over a year, VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess asked the court to allow them to delay their official response to the class-action lawsuit—filed almost three weeks ago—until May 28.  

The Legal Aid Justice Center, Legal Aid Works, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Consumer Litigation Associates, PC, and Kelly Guzzo, PLC, submitted an opposition to this motion soon after on behalf of the named plaintiff in the lawsuit. 

“None of this is news to the Commonwealth, as Plaintiffs, their counsel, political leaders, the media and endless numbers of affected Virginians have been contacting the VEC for well over six months” wrote the legal team representing those harmed by the VEC in their opposition to the motion to delay, “And yet, in defense of a lawsuit premised on the allegation that the VEC cannot timely respond to Virginians seeking federal insured unemployment, the VEC suggests that it also cannot timely respond to them here.”

“Virginians have waited long enough,” said Pat Levy- Lavelle, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center said, “We hope Judge Hudson quickly denies this request and moves us one step closer to relief for Virginians suffering due to inaction by the VEC.”

“Under normal circumstances, I would routinely agree to grant opposing counsel the courtesy of some extra time to file an answer, but the workers waiting months for benefits know these are not normal circumstances, and no one has given them “extra time” to pay their rent or utility or food bills,” said Ann H. Kloeckner, Esq, Executive Director of Legal Aid Works.

Since the filing of the proposed class action lawsuit, legal aid organizations across the state have been inundated with requests for help from Virginians desperate to receive unemployment insurance funds—needed emergency aid—that has been too long held up by an inaccessible system.

For more information on the proposed class action lawsuit along with stories from those affected, visit www.justice4all.org/ui

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The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) partners with communities and clients to achieve justice by dismantling systems that create and perpetuate poverty.  By justice, we mean racial, social, and economic justice. 

The Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) is the state support center for all civil legal aid programs in Virginia.  VPLC’s work breaks down systemic barriers that keep low-income Virginians in the cycle of poverty through advocacy, education, and litigation.

Legal Aid Works (LAW) champions fairness by advocating for those with the least access to the civil justice system.

View pdf here.

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