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LAJC’s 2019 Legislative Agenda

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Legal Aid Justice Center’s 2019 Legislative Agenda:

Richmond, Virginia, (January 14, 2019) –The 2019 Virginia legislative session is underway! Session began Wednesday, January 9th, as the legislature worked to organize itself for a short 45-day legislative session. The General Assembly alternates between 60-day sessions, during which it completes a full biennial budget, and 45-day “short” sessions, during which they…still do quite a bit of work on the biennial budget.
 
As with last year and for a few years to come, the legislature will complete much of its committee work and have legislative offices in the Pocahontas Building, located at 900 E. Main St in Richmond.
   
Legislators have already filed about 1,950 bills and resolutions for this 45-day session, and more are coming. LAJC staff will be working to educate policymakers and support our partners on a variety of issues. You can access our full LAJC legislative agenda here, and below you will find a brief summary of our primary priorities for this session:
 
JustChildren: Educate Every Child & Juvenile Justice
Legislation

  • Right-Size school counselor caseloads to the nationally-recommended best practice of one counselor for every 250 students.
  • Bring transparency and accountability to disciplinary alternative education through data collection and reporting, disaggregated by race and disability.
  • Decriminalize disorderly conduct for students in school setting.Ensure all School Resource Officers have appropriate training to work with students from all backgrounds.
  • Require schools and law enforcement agencies to enter into memorandums of understanding governing the use of School Resource Officers, and assure staff are trained on these plans.
  • Support efforts to raise the minimum age of eligibility that youth may be tried in adult court.

Budget Amendments:
LAJC will be supporting several budget items in Governor Northam’s introduced budget, as well as legislative budget amendments to make sure our schools are adequately funded and focused on ensuring students have access to support staff, with a priority on school counselors. In the introduced budget, Governor Northam provided funding to “right-size” school counselor caseloads and increase targeted “At-Risk Add-On” funding for economically disadvantaged students. We’ll also be supporting legislative budget amendments that seek to fulfill the Virginia Board of Education’s recommendations on fully funding Virginia schools’ Standards of Quality.

Civil Rights & Racial Justice
Legislation

  • End the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid or delinquent court debt.
  • Codify both the state’s commitment to pretrial liberty for all people and its commitment to transparent public access to the full scope of pretrial outcomes across the Commonwealth.
  • Repeal the antiquated “Interdiction” statute to prevent the unconstitutional criminalization of people who are homeless by legally labeling them as “habitual drunkards” if they buy, possess, or consume alcohol.

Immigrant Advocacy
LAJC will be working in partnership with VACOLAO, immigrant students with DACA status, and the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights to ensure that immigrant communities have equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equal representation in the Commonwealth. Priorities for this session include:

  • Driver’s permit access for all immigrant Virginians; 
  • In-state tuition access for immigrant Virginia students regardless of immigration status; and
  • Preventing the expansion of federal immigration authorities over local and state agency information.

Economic Justice
LAJC will be working in partnership with the Virginia Poverty Law Center to support efforts to reduce evictions in the Commonwealth, expand opportunities for localities to increase the availability of affordable housing, and prevent financial exploitation of low-income Virginians. At the state level, we are also members of the Campaign to Reduce Evictions.

Legislation
: See VPLC’s full legislative agenda here.

Support our legislative advocacy efforts!
You can access our Legal Aid Justice Center legislative agenda here. To get involved with our legislative advocacy, please contact us at info@justice4all.org and let us know if you’re closer to Richmond, Charlottesville, or Northern Virginia.

You can also sign up for email alerts on our website, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We will be sharing advocacy materials, updates, blog posts, and calls to action as the session progresses!

Public Housing Tenants Reach Settlement with RRHA

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Sylvia Cosby Jones, Esq., Managing Attorney
Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7305 | sylvia@justice4all.org


PUBLIC HOUSING TENANTS REACH SETTLEMENT WITH RICHMOND REDEVELOMENT AND HOUSING AUTHORITY ON CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT

Richmond, Va., July 11, 2018—
Yesterday, U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney, Jr., of the Eastern District of Virginia Federal Court, approved a class action settlement between Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and a group of tenants, valued at more than two and a half million dollars. The settlement and final order resolved a federal class action lawsuit challenging RRHA’s failure to properly set and implement tenant utility allowances.  A fairness hearing was held on July 10, 2018, and Judge Gibney signed the order shortly thereafter.  

Under the terms of the proposed agreement, $1,182,984.76 will be distributed among current and former Richmond public housing tenants who were subjected to RRHA’s utility surcharges from November 1, 2012, through October 31, 2016.  An additional $112,876.10 will be returned to tenants through implementation of new utility allowances. The new allowances will result in reduced charges to tenants of approximately $1.3 million over three years, thus bringing the total amount of cash and other relief for tenants to approximately $2.6 million.

The class action lawsuit, filed in February 2017, alleged that RRHA’s failure to properly set, implement, and charge electric utility allowances, resulted in unlawful excessive charges to current and former public housing tenants.  Federal law requires that public housing tenants not be charged more than 30% of their income for rent and utilities. A class of plaintiffs, represented by lawyers at Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), and Thomas D. Domonoske of Consumer Litigation Associates, contended that these excessive charges increased tenants’ share of their housing costs, and caused tenants to pay more than allowed in violation of federal law, state law, and tenants’ leases.

In approving the settlement, Judge Gibney found that the relief to tenants and former tenants was fair, reasonable, and adequate.  During the fairness hearing, he commended the named plaintiffs in the action for their bravery in “standing up to city hall.”

In addition to monetary relief, under the terms of the settlement agreement Judge Gibney has approved, RRHA will:

  • Set and implement new, higher utility allowances that will stay in place for at least 3 years.
  • Create new notices, policies and procedures for elderly and disabled tenants needing additional electric usage due to their conditions.
  • Change its billing statements to give tenants more information about their utility surcharges.
  • Not bill to residents the Dominion “customer charge” unless HUD fails to reimburse RRHA for these charges at the same rate it reimburses RRHA for other operating costs.
  • Change its lease so that late fees and other non-rent charges are not treated as rent.
  • Change its lease so that it states whether a tenant has submetered utilities and list each tenant’s utility allowance.
  • Ensure RRHA staff is trained regarding utility billing procedures, tenant requests for relief from utility billing, and the grievance procedure for tenants to contest charges.
  • Use unclaimed refunds to create an energy efficiency fund for the benefit of RRHA public housing residents who need assistance maintaining energy efficient homes.

Shanta Miles, a named plaintiff in the case, said of the final settlement: “Unfair excess utility charges put so many families in a state of panic and helplessness.  Our efforts to get the housing authority to do the right thing was well worth the many years we put into it; and today we have insured that there will be better accountability between RRHA and tenants.” 

Sylvia Cosby Jones, lead counsel for the Plaintiffs, added: “This is a great day for the tenants and former tenants, who not only will be compensated for past unfair charges, but who will have a clearer and fairer process for bills going forward. We are pleased that RRHA worked hard with our clients to come to an agreement that satisfied all parties.”      

Final Order (pdf) 

About the Legal Aid Justice Center
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), representing Plaintiffs in this case, fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

About Thomas D. Domonoske
Mr. Domonoske, representing the Plaintiffs in this case, is of counsel with Consumer Litigation Associates.  His primary emphasis is on using the civil justice system to remedy credit-related frauds, including predatory lending, debt collection, and credit reporting.  He has published many articles on several aspects of consumer law in various professional publications.  In the past seventeen years he has given over 140 consumer law trainings at various events around the country and regularly trains JAG lawyers for the United States military.  He has served as a member of the Harrisonburg City School Board and also on the Board of Directors of the Fairfield Center and the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

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Budget Includes Big Wins for Low-Income Virginians

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Nearly three months after the close of the 2018 General Assembly Regular Session, Governor Northam signed the 2018-2020 biennial budget bill, which most notably included the necessary framework for the Commonwealth to expand its Medicaid program in order to cover nearly 400,000 currently uninsured low-income Virginians. The Medicaid Expansion advocacy effort has spanned 5 years, three administrations, and several different iterations of the General Assembly, but one constant over that time period has been the united front of advocates–individuals and organizations across the spectrum–who continued to fight long and hard for this moment. LAJC is proud to have worked as a partner in the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, alongside our friends at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and the Virginia Poverty Law Center (thank you, Jill Hanken!) as we fought for the healthcare needs of our clients. 

The main provisions of the expansion will come into effect on January 1, 2019, but the state has already posted more information on the ins and outs of the new coverage categories on its CoverVa website here.

Medicaid Expansion is a huge victory, and deservedly in the spotlight as the headliner of the state’s new budget, but LAJC also advocated for many other budget reforms, many of which were realized in meaningful ways:

Children’s Mental Health:

We successfully advocated alongside our partners at Voices for Virginia’s Children to make sure that children were included in the approved proposal to invest $7 million to establish a statewide system of alternative transportation for children and adults under a Temporary Detention Order (TDO). Currently, after patients have been evaluated and found to be in need of involuntary inpatient treatment, they are transported to treatment facilities by law enforcement, which includes shackling and being placed in a police cruiser. The new funding will allow Virginia to develop treatment-focused alternative transportation options that can decriminalize what can be a traumatic experience for patients who are already experiencing trauma. LAJC has worked with several very young clients, for example (ages 7 and 9) who, because of no other options, were shackled and taken to the hospital by law enforcement. One of these children had just been removed from his family by social services and seen his own father arrested–his only other experience with police at that point. Providing options in appropriate cases can help patients, families, and even law enforcement provide appropriate, safe care while using the patient’s own therapeutic needs as a guiding principle, which follows best practices in mental health treatment.

K-12 Public Education:

The biennial budget’s largest K-12 investment went to rebenchmarking our overall spending, which the General Assembly must do on a set schedule. It’s critical to underscore that rebenchmarking in and of itself DOES NOT provide the full and necessary investments in our Standards of Quality to assure all children across the state are receiving a high-quality education. We have a long way to go, and LAJC will continue to advocate, using all of our tools, to assure our K-12 system is adequately funded. Even so, the new budget did contain several new pieces of funding for policy proposals on our legislative agenda this year:

1. We successfully advocated for a one-percent increase (to 14% from 13%) to the “At-risk Add-on” range, a funding stream that provides additional dollars to local school divisions, measured in relation to the number of economically disadvantaged students attending in the division. Increasing the high end of the range will help some of our most under-funded school divisions (several of which are in our practice areas) provide more funding to students in need. Our goal for the year, in collaboration with our partners in the Alliance for Virginia’s Students, was to raise this threshold to somewhere between 20% to 25%; while we will accept the incremental bump as a win, we will continue to push for increases in funding that prioritize areas of poverty in the Commonwealth.

2. Through advocacy with both the Governor’s office and the General Assembly, we successfully advocated for a $1 million increase in funding for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a framework that helps to reduce the use of school suspension and expulsion by focusing on prevention, improving school climate, and tailoring higher-level interventions to the specific needs and circumstances of students with more challenging behavior issues. Nearly seven years ago, LAJC led the way in advocating for the initial line-item inclusion of PBIS in the budget, and this year’s budget addition represents the largest increase in the program since its inception. And we will continue our advocacy to create and improve more alternatives to suspension and expulsion–read more about our recommendations, which include things like restorative practices and social and emotional learning, in our Suspended Progress reports.

Juvenile Justice:

We successfully defended against a proposal initially put forth by the House of Delegates to build a new 156-bed facility at the old Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center site, which would have put an exceptionally large youth prison back in a remote location that has a terrible history of unsafe, harsh youth incarceration, and placed community alternative funds in great jeopardy. The General Assembly instead approved pieces of a plan put forth by the Northam administration to build a 60-bed facility in Isle of Wight, Virginia, and lay some initial groundwork for planning a to-be-determined Central Virginia facility to replace Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. We will continue to advocate for the decarceration of youth, and to work hard on reforming our juvenile justice system to stop the flow of young people further into the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems. 

What’s Next:

Just as one session ends, it seems preparation for the next year’s session begins. Stay tuned for more information on LAJC’s 2019 legislative advocacy agenda over the next few months. We’ll be continuing to work on issues like reforming the court debt process, increasing education equity and education funding, improving school discipline and reducing school exclusion, protecting immigrant communities, reducing evictions, and assuring low-income Virginians are able to achieve economic security. If you’d like to become involved in our legislative and administrative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at amy@justice4all.org. You can also sign up for our email alerts here.

 

2018 Legislative Session Wrap Up

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The 2018 Virginia legislative regular session came to a close this month on March 10, but reached its conclusion without the General Assembly passing a biennial budget for 2018-2020.  The main issue preventing agreement on the budget was whether or not Virginia will opt into federal funding to expand our Medicaid program to cover the three to four hundred thousand uninsured Virginians living in poverty who are currently ineligible for any affordable quality health plan. While Governor Northam and a majority of the House of Delegates agreed on a plan to move forward with expanding coverage, Senate Republicans did not, and the budget bills did not move forward.

Still, Virginia can only operate with an approved budget, so Governor Northam has called a Special Session for April 11th, at which point legislators will return to Richmond and try again to come to an agreement on funding priorities. LAJC continues to unequivocally support expanding Medicaid (or a sincerely similar plan) to ensure health care coverage access for the 400,000 Virginians who are cut off from being able to access critical basic care. We are members of the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, and stand in support with the coalition’s work.

The Reconvened or “Veto” session is scheduled for April 18th, at which point the General Assembly will deal with any amendments to bills from the Governor and other matters. Below you’ll find some highlights of our legislative session work:

Educate Every Child:
SB 170 (Stanley): Our effort to dramatically curb suspensions of young students in grades pre-K through third grade is on its way to Governor Northam’s desk, coming out of both the Senate and House on very strong votes. The bill caps most all suspensions of children in these grades at no more than three days. During the 2015-2016 school year, Virginia schools doled out more than 17,300 suspensions just in these early years. We’re grateful to our bipartisan patrons and champions, especially Senators Stanley, McClellan, Locke, and Dunnavant for their strong advocacy.
 
HB1600 (Bourne) is also awaiting Governor Northam’s pen, passing out of the legislature on similarly strong votes. This bipartisan bill, chief co-patroned by Del. Dickie Bell, narrows the length of most all long-term suspensions to a period of 11-45 days, down from its current span of 11-364 days, in an effort to reduce school pushout.
 
Read more on the data and policy behind these bills in our Suspended Progress 2017 report released last September. Also stay tuned for more analysis of implementing these new laws, via practice advisories and follow-up reporting in the next edition of Suspended Progress.
 
K-12 Budget Amendments: Like everyone in the Commonwealth, we’re eager to see the biennial budget process resolved. If the legislature approves a plan to accept federal funding to increase health care access, we anticipate at least some of those savings to be invested in K-12 education. Both the House and Senate have indicated their interest in directing some funds toward students and teachers, though their respective approaches differ. We’ve advocated for increases in the funding stream directed towards economically disadvantaged students (the “At-Risk Add-on”) and funds for schools to implement alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. We’ll update you all after the Special Session to outline how the agreement is to unfold for K-12.

Juvenile Justice:
We’ve been working to protect investments in home- and community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth, supporting efforts to keep youth out of incarceration. Through our partnership in the RISE for Youth coalition, we’ve been working hard to push back against legislative efforts to unnecessarily construct new, large youth prisons that we know hurt youth and families. Stay tuned for our budget result analysis in this area, as well.

Protect Civil Rights and Decriminalize Poverty:
One in six drivers in Virginia has their license suspended for unpaid court fines and fees—an unfair, automatic process that keeps many people in a cycle of debt, unemployment, and further criminal charges. We worked hard to champion SB 181 (Stanley), a bill that would’ve repealed this suspension statute and helped dismantle the Commonwealth’s debtors’ prison model that our code enables. The bill performed strongly in the Senate, reporting out of a challenging Courts committee, an often insurmountable Finance committee, and the Senate floor before crossing over into House Appropriations, where it was ultimately struck down on a 5(Rs) – 3(Ds) party line vote. We increasingly built strong bipartisan legislative and media support for the bill before and over the course of the session, and have already begun plans to bring it back next year.

Support Immigrant Communities:
LAJC partnered with VACOLAO on priorities to ensure that immigrant communities have equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equal representation in the Commonwealth, including: driver’s license/permit access for all immigrant Virginians and in-state tuition access for immigrant Virginia students regardless of legal status. Unfortunately, despite fervent advocacy and inspirational positive turnout at committee hearings, these bills were voted down along party lines. We will continue to advocate on these and other immigration issues, to grow bipartisan support for these critical human and civil rights efforts.

To become involved with our legislative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at amy@justice4all.org. You can also sign up for email alerts on our website here

Settlement Reached in RVA Utilities Class Action

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contacts:

Sylvia Cosby Jones, Esq., Managing Attorney
Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7305 | sylvia@justice4all.org

James Bowling, Esq., St. John, Bowling, Lawrence & Quagliana, LLP
Counsel for the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority
434-296-7138 | jmb@stlawva.com

JOINT PRESS RELEASE:

PUBLIC HOUSING TENANTS REACH SETTLEMENT WITH RICHMOND REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTHORITY ON CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT

 Richmond, Va., February 6, 2018—

Public housing tenants and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) have reached a proposed settlement in a federal class action lawsuit challenging RRHA’s implementation of tenant utility allowances. 

Under the terms of the proposed agreement, $951,835.45 will be distributed among current and former Richmond public housing tenants who were impacted by RRHA’s utility surcharges from November 1, 2012, through October 31, 2016.  An additional $79,590.23 will be returned to tenants through implementation of new utility allowances. Cenquetta Harris, a named plaintiff in the case, said of the proposed settlement: “As tenants, we work hard to try to pay our bills, but our utility bills were too high. This settlement shows that when we band together to stand up for ourselves, we can make sure that everyone is treated fairly.”  RRHA Interim Chief Executive Officer Orlando Artze said, “We are pleased to have worked constructively with the plaintiffs over the past several years to resolve this complex dispute so that RRHA can continue to focus on meeting the needs of residents in our public housing communities.”

The class action lawsuit, filed in February 2017, alleges that RRHA’s failure to properly set, implement, and charge electric utility allowances, resulted in excessive charges to current and former public housing tenants.  A proposed class of plaintiffs, represented by lawyers at Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), and Thomas D. Domonoske, Consumer Litigation Associates, contend that these excessive charges increased tenants’ share of their housing costs, and caused tenants to pay more than allowed.

While RRHA denies any wrongdoing, the parties have agreed to the proposed settlement in order to avoid the uncertainty and expense associated with continued litigation, and believe that the proposed settlement agreement is in the best interest of RRHA and all impacted public housing tenants.  “RRHA is glad to have reached an amicable result with the tenant plaintiffs in this case, which promotes RRHA’s goal of transparency and fairness while providing affordable housing to Richmond residents,” said Artze.  “It is important to note that RRHA did not benefit financially from the billing of utility charges to residents.  In fact, the administrative requirements of the utility surcharge system and insufficient HUD subsidy result in RRHA’s provision of electric utility service to residents at a financial loss to the agency.”  Similar settlements have been reached with the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority as well as the Petersburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The proposed settlement, filed today, must be approved by Federal District Court Judge John A. Gibney, Jr. before it is final.  In addition to monetary relief, RRHA will make changes in its lease as well as in certain policies and practices, including:

  • Setting and implementing new, higher utility allowances that will stay in place for at least 3 years.
  • Creating new notices, policies and procedures for elderly and disabled tenants needing additional electric usage due to their conditions.
  • Changing its billing statements to give tenants more information about their utility surcharges.
  • Ensuring RRHA staff is trained regarding utility billing procedures, tenant requests for relief from utility billing, and the grievance procedure.

“The settlement is the result of hard work by both parties, and we are very pleased that in addition to relief for past charges, our clients will be billed fairly and in compliance with HUD rules going forward,” said Sylvia Jones, attorney for the plaintiff tenants.  Interim CEO Orlando Artze also noted that he is pleased that any unclaimed refunds will be used to create an energy efficiency fund for the benefit of RRHA public housing residents.   

Documents:

Settlement Agreement (PDF) 

Joint Motion for Class Certification and Preliminary Approval (PDF)

Memo in Support of Joint Motion (PDF)

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About the Legal Aid Justice Center
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), representing Plaintiffs in this case, fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

About Thomas D. Domonoske
Mr. Domonoske, representing the Plaintiffs in this case, is of counsel with Consumer Litigation Associates.  His primary emphasis is on using the civil justice system to remedy credit-related frauds, including predatory lending, debt collection, and credit reporting.  He has published many articles on several aspects of consumer law in various professional publications.  In the past seventeen years he has given over 140 consumer law trainings at various events around the country and regularly trains JAG lawyers for the United States military.  He has served as a member of the Harrisonburg City School Board and also on the Board of Directors of the Fairfield Center and the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

About the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA)                            
A locally administered, and federally funded housing authority, RRHA provides real estate development, rental housing assistance, and property management of public housing communities for low and moderate-income families throughout the City of Richmond.

About St. John, Bowling, Lawrence & Quagliana, LLP
St. John, Bowling, Lawrence & Quagliana, LLP, representing RRHA in this case, is a litigation firm that has past experience in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 public housing litigation and represents clients in Virginia state and federal courts in matters including civil rights law, business law, eminent domain, criminal defense, college and university disciplinary proceedings, government representation, estate planning and real estate matters.

Our 2018 VA Legislative Priorities

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Dear Friends of LAJC, 
  
The 2018 Virginia legislative session is underway! Session began Wednesday, January 10th, as the legislature worked to organize itself amidst many new faces and a new building: this year—and for at least three more sessions until a new building is completed—the General Assembly will complete much of its committee work and have legislative offices in the Pocahontas Building, located at 900 E. Main St. in Richmond. 
  
Legislators have already filed more than 2400 bills & resolutions so far for this 60-day session, and more are coming. LAJC staff will be working to educate policymakers and support our partners on a variety of issues, but our primary priorities for this session:  
   
Educate Every Child 
SB 170 (Stanley, McClellan) / HB 296 (D. Bell, Bourne): Once again, we’ll be working hard to roll back harmful school suspension and expulsion laws. This year we’ll be focusing on eliminating suspension and expulsion for students in Pre-K to 3rd grade. Read more on the data and policy behind our recommendation in our Suspended Progress 2017 report released last October
  
SB 476 (Reeves): In an effort to limit unnecessary and harmful contact between students and law enforcement, we are supporting this bill to give schools discretion in whether to refer students to law enforcement for misdemeanors and status offenses. Currently, schools have no choice and are mandated to refer nearly all offenses. 
  
Budget Amendments: LAJC will be supporting several budget amendments to make sure our schools are adequately funded and focused on improving school climate and reducing suspension and expulsion. These amendments include: additional funding for alternatives to suspension and expulsion; increasing targeted “At-risk Add-on” funding for economically disadvantaged students; and lifting the artificial cap on schools’ ability to fund support staff such as social workers, psychologists, nurses, and maintenance staff. 
   
Juvenile Justice: We will be working to protect investments in home- and community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth and making sure Virginia juvenile justice policies don’t create an open door to the adult prison system. 
  
Protect Civil Rights and Decriminalize Poverty
SB 181
 (Stanley)One in six drivers in Virginia has their license suspended for unpaid court fines and fees—an unfair, automatic process that keeps many people in a cycle of debt, unemployment, criminal charges, and even jail when they must drive to meet their basic needs: work, healthcare appointments, the grocery store, and more. SB181 would repeal this license suspension statute, which is not only ineffective at collecting fines and fees, but also props up a debtors’ prison model in the Commonwealth. 
  
LAJC will also be weighing in on any criminal justice efforts that affect low-income communities of color, who most often bear the weight of policies that impede access to justice and expand/perpetuate mass incarceration and its consequences. Among those proposals, we will be supporting a broad increase to the felony larceny threshold and positive reform to the discovery process in Virginia.

Support Immigrant Communities
LAJC will be working in partnership with VACOLAO to ensure that immigrant communities have equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equal representation in the Commonwealth. Priorities for this session include: driver’s license/permit access for all immigrant Virginians; in-state tuition access for immigrant Virginia students regardless of legal status, and resolution efforts to condemn hate and celebrate diversity.  
   
Improve Health Care Access
LAJC unequivocally supports expanding Medicaid to ensure health care coverage access for the 400,000 Virginians who are cut off from being able to access critical basic care. We are members of the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, and stand in support with the coalition’s work.
  
To get involved with our legislative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at amy@justice4all.org
  
You can also sign up for email alerts on our website here (we will be sending more session updates like this one), and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We will be sharing advocacy materials, updates, blog posts, and calls to action as the session progresses!

Settlement in Hopewell Public Housing Redevelopment

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACTS:
Tim Wallace, Director of Development              Mike Burnette, Director of Communications
Legal Aid Justice Center                                 Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc.
434-529-1853 | twallace@justice4all.org          804-354-0641 x118 | Mike@HOMEofVA.org

HUD SETTLES CIVIL RIGHTS CLAIMS MADE BY RESIDENTS OF FIRST PUBLIC HOUSING SITE IN VIRGINIA TO BE PRIVITIZED VIA FEDERAL RAD PROGRAM

Hopewell, Va., October 2, 2017—

            Today, five former public housing residents settled fair housing complaints they filed in Spring of 2017 with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) related to the privatization and redevelopment of their Hopewell, Virginia public housing complex under HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program[i].  The complaints alleged that the local housing authority and the developer discriminated against families with children and against residents with disabilities; pushed some residents out of their homes in violation of their legal right to return to the redeveloped units; and relocated other residents to severely overcrowded housing in poor condition[ii].

            HUD announced in May that it had launched a formal investigation into the complaints filed by residents of the Langston Park public housing complex, which was redeveloped and privatized under the RAD program, and renamed the Summit apartments. Today the complainants signed a conciliation agreement with HUD, Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA), and the developer Community Housing Partners (CHP) that requires CHP and HRHA to make widespread changes to policy and compensate specific individuals harmed in the past. These changes and compensation include:

  • Eliminating discriminatory and unwarranted policies at HRHA and CHP;
  • Appointing a fair housing coordinator in perpetuity who will provide resources and contact information for how applicants and residents can file fair housing complaints at HUD;
  • Monitoring of both CHP and HRHA’s future compliance with fair housing laws, by HUD as well as through fair housing testing conducted by an outside expert;
  • Improved procedures by CHP and HRHA for handling requests for reasonable accommodations by people with disabilities;
  • Improved relocation procedures for future RAD projects addressing resident needs proactively from beginning to end;
  • Installation of an age-appropriate playground for older children at the Summit with resident input;
  • Creation of fully funded after-school and summer programs for children at the Summit; and
  • Monetary compensation totaling more than $225,000 for the named complainants and a $112,300 compensation fund for other residents of the property whose fair housing rights were violated based on family status.

Attorneys with the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) and Housing Opportunities Make Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME) filed the complaints on behalf of their clients to prevent further civil rights violations against their clients and other residents who were harmed in the RAD redevelopment process and/or continue to be discriminated against. Housing discrimination is a problem that is not exclusive to Hopewell or Virginia, and Helen Hardiman, vice president of law and policy at HOME says victories can be achieved one step at a time. “Since 1988, the federal Fair Housing Act has prohibited housing discrimination against people because they have a disability or kids. It’s frustrating that this discrimination still exists in our communities, but it is satisfying that we could halt these egregious practices and grant some relief for families and people with disabilities who lived or live at housing managed by HRHA or CHP.”

RAD is often touted as the new frontier of public housing, but advocates are concerned that the program lacks adequate accountability to protect residents’ rights. Lack of HUD oversight and broad program discretion under RAD can lead to situations like Hopewell. According to Kim Rolla, attorney with the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program at Legal Aid Justice Center, “If HUD doesn’t improve oversight of the RAD program, the Summit could be just the tip of a wave of massive problems as HUD and local housing authorities privatize public housing to finance its redevelopment.” There are currently several dozen other public housing communities in Virginia that HUD has approved to convert under the program. (See below for a list of localities/communities approved for RAD conversion[iii].)  These ‘public-private partnerships’ are still publicly funded and their purpose is to serve the lowest income community members, not primarily for developers or investors to make money. “We need HUD to monitor these programs and ensure our tax dollars are being used for their intended purpose,” Rolla states.

FHEO Summit Conciliation Agreement (PDF)

About the Legal Aid Justice Center
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance.

About Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc.
Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME), founded in 1971, is a statewide fair housing non‐profit. HOME’s mission is to ensure equal access to housing for all people. HOME investigates housing discrimination and provides support for victims of discrimination. You can learn more about HOME and all of its services at www.HOMEofVA.org.

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[i] BACKGROUND ON RAD
Public Housing across the country is falling apart from years of deferred maintenance and neglect.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hopes to increasingly attract private dollars to redevelop public housing properties through a program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).  RAD is a “public-private partnership” model for redevelopment. In most RAD projects, public housing authorities transfer both management and a large portion of ownership of formerly public housing to private companies, but continue to subsidize the property with direct and indirect federal assistance.

The Summit at Hopewell was the first RAD conversion in Virginia.  Under the RAD program, Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) transferred management and ownership of Langston Park in 2014 to Community Housing Partners (CHP) who razed the community and then built new apartments on the site, changing the name to the Summit at Hopewell.    

[ii] DETAILS OF ALLEGED ABUSES:
According to the residents’ formal complaint to HUD, CHP illegally discriminated against the families from Langston Park who returned to the Summit after its redevelopment based on disability status or having children. CHP forbade anyone under the age of 18 from watching their younger siblings, taking out the trash on their own, accessing the computers and other amenities at the community center if not under the direct supervision of an adult, or playing outside unsupervised. One letter from the Summit’s property manager even threatened to call Child Protective Services if children were left in the care of anyone under the age of 18.  According to Helen Hardiman, Vice President of Law and Policy at Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc., “CHP’s behavior left families with children little choice: stay inside or face harsh penalties. This is exactly the kind of discrimination the Fair Housing Act outlaws.”

One of the complaints states that HRHA and CHP denied a resident’s repeated requests for a first-floor unit at the Summit to accommodate her medical disability, in violation of her rights. Last year, she died at her home in the Summit of cardiac arrest and arrhythmia, complications from the very disabilities that were exacerbated by HRHA and CHP’s alleged failure to grant her multiple requests for a reasonable accommodation. Within a week of her death, CHP moved to evict her surviving household members, her 8- and 9-year old grandnieces. Another complaint states that the disabled resident was forced to use a bucket and rag to bathe for almost half a year due to an inaccessible shower, which CHP refused her requests to modify. Such failures to provide accessible accommodations in response to disabled residents’ requests violate the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The frequent moves and unhealthy, crowded conditions of replacement housing offered during the redevelopment process even contributed to complainant Kitty Wade losing custody of her youngest child. “During the redevelopment process they moved my family of six from our five-bedroom apartment in Langston Park into a run-down, two-bedroom apartment with mold problems. That’s when my ex-husband filed for, and eventually got, custody of my baby boy, because of the bad housing conditions and their health effects on my kids,” states Wade. “Then when we moved back into the Summit after the redevelopment, the management had so many rules about what kids couldn’t do that I ended up mostly keeping my kids inside the house all the time. It just felt like they didn’t care about us and didn’t really want families with children there.”

RAD program rules also guarantee all residents the right to return to the redeveloped property. In a complaint submitted to HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which is in charge of managing the RAD program, multiple families from Langston Park described being pushed out of the community altogether, and not allowed to return to the Summit after its redevelopment. HRHA and CHP rebuilt the Summit with fewer large apartments for families with children. One resident in Langston Park with a daughter in a wheelchair claims CHP told her that there would not be an accessible unit at the Summit. Several residents from Langston Park claim they were misinformed and pressured, in violation of RAD program rules, to accept buyout offers to move elsewhere rather than return after redevelopment, apparently because their return to the Summit would limit CHP’s eligibility for tax credit financing.

In a July 17, 2017 letter to HRHA, HUD’s Office of Recapitalization found that HRHA denied four residents their right to return and ordered HRHA to extend an offer to the families immediately to return to the subsidized housing they were forced from. According to Kim Rolla, “residents are the intended beneficiaries of this program and they have a federally guaranteed right to return to the redeveloped property. The denial of this right caused displaced residents extreme financial hardship. Many ended up in unstable housing situations and some even experienced periods of homelessness. The lack of communication and attention to residents’ needs – and outright prioritizing of financing over resident rights and wellbeing – troublingly suggest that they were not a priority in this transaction.”

[iii] List of Approved RAD Conversions in Virginia (PDF) 

HUD to Investigate Redevelopment Abuses

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Opens Investigation into Displacement, Poor Conditions, and Discrimination at Virginia’s First Privatized Public Housing Community. 

 Hopewell, Va., March 9, 2017—In response to complaints filed on behalf of eight current and former public housing residents, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has opened an investigation into discrimination and other program violations at Virginia’s first Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) conversion. Under the RAD program, Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) and Community Housing Partners (CHP) razed the public housing community Langston Park in 2014 and built new apartments on the site, now called the Summit at Hopewell. The complaints allege HRHA and CHP discriminated against both families with children and residents with disabilities; pushed tenants out of Langston Park, depriving them of their legal right to return to the redeveloped Summit at Hopewell; and relocated other tenants to severely overcrowded housing in poor condition.

The complaints to HUD describe multiple violations of residents’ civil rights under the federal Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. They also allege violations of protections of the federal Uniform Relocation Act for relocated residents, and of RAD program requirements meant to protect affected residents. The alleged problems began early in the conversion process and have continued through the present.

According to the complaints, CHP illegally discriminated against the families from Langston Park who returned to the Summit after construction based on disability status or having children. CHP forbade anyone under the age of 18 from watching their younger siblings, taking out the trash on their own, accessing the computers and other amenities at the community center if not under the direct supervision of an adult, or playing outside unsupervised. One letter from the Summit’s property manager even threatened to call Child Protective Services if children were left in the care of someone under the age of 18. According to Helen Hardiman, Vice President of Law and Policy at Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc., “CHP’s alleged behavior left families with children little choice: stay inside or face harsh penalties. This is exactly the kind of discrimination the Fair Housing Act outlaws.”

One of the complaints states that HRHA and CHP denied a resident’s repeated requests for a first floor unit at the Summit to accommodate her medical disability, in violation of her rights. Last year, she died at her home in the Summit of cardiac arrest and arrhythmia, complications from the very disabilities that were exacerbated by HRHA and CHP’s alleged failure to grant her multiple requests for a reasonable accommodation. Within a week of her death, CHP moved to evict her surviving household members, her 8- and 9-year old grandnieces.

The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) is a “public-private partnership” model for redeveloping aging public housing. In most RAD projects, public housing authorities transfer both management and a large portion of ownership of formerly public housing to private companies, but continue to subsidize the property with direct and indirect federal assistance. Langston Park was the first RAD conversion in Virginia. There are currently thirty-nine other public housing communities in Virginia that HUD has approved to convert under the program. (See below for a list of localities/communities approved for RAD conversion.)   

The RAD conversion process requires property management to relocate residents to suitable housing on or off site during construction. According to the HUD complaints, when construction work began at the Summit in 2014, residents were relocated off-site to apartments that were overcrowded or virtually uninhabitable. Families as large as six members were crammed into two-bedroom apartments. Many of these apartments also had moisture and mold issues, according to some parents who allege that previously healthy children experienced medical problems while living in the overcrowded and rundown units, including asthma and other breathing issues.

RAD program rules also guarantee all residents the right to return to the redeveloped property. Some families from Langston Park allege they were pushed out of the community altogether, and not allowed to return to the Summit after construction. HRHA and CHP rebuilt the Summit with fewer large apartments for families with children. One resident in Langston Park with a daughter in a wheelchair claims CHP told her that there would not be an accessible unit at the Summit. Several residents at Langston Park claim they were misinformed and pressured, in violation of program rules, to accept buyout offers to move elsewhere, apparently because their return to the Summit would limit CHP’s eligibility for tax credit financing. According to Kim Rolla, Staff Attorney and Housing Coordinator at Legal Aid Justice Center, “all of these alleged actions denied residents – the intended beneficiaries of this program – their federally guaranteed right to return to the redeveloped property. It caused displaced residents extreme financial hardship. Many ended up in unstable housing situations, and some even experienced periods of homelessness.”

Despite these widespread problems, both CHP and HRHA have been approved for another RAD conversion together. Both are currently involved in the conversion of an elderly and disabled public housing building – Kippax Place – where advocates are uncovering similar problems and additional ones unique to that building’s population.

LAJC and HOME filed the complaints on behalf of their clients to prevent further violations of the rights of their clients and other residents who were harmed in the conversion process and/or are continuing to be discriminated against. RAD is often touted as the new frontier of public housing, but HUD, housing authorities, and RAD developers must remember their obligations under the law. The redevelopment of Langston Park is a prime example of a failure to do so, and at the expense of residents who deserve better.

To Read HUD’s Letters Announcing the Investigation, click here.

About the Legal Aid Justice Center
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide. 

About Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc.
Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME), founded in 1971, is a statewide fair housing non‐profit. HOME’s mission is to ensure equal access to housing for all people. HOME investigates housing discrimination and provides support for victims of discrimination. You can learn more about HOME and all of its services at www.HOMEofVA.org.

Virginia Tenants Sue Debt Collector

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TENANTS ALLEGE DECEPTIVE NOTICES AND HIGH FEES IN CLASS ACTION COMPLAINT

Charlottesville, Virginia, October 5, 2016 – Five tenants from Richmond, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg have filed a class-action lawsuit in the Charlottesville federal court against Senex Law, P.C., a debt collection firm hired by the plaintiffs’ and many other Virginia landlords. The plaintiffs, represented pro bono by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firm of MichieHamlett, allege that Senex uses deceptive practices to collect alleged delinquent rent and other fees from tenants, in violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Senex’s practices harm tenants through costly additional charges and for some, lengthy eviction records. The five plaintiffs have brought the case on behalf of a statewide class of tenants who suffered at the hands of Senex’s unlawful practices.

“Senex sells its system as an easy time-saver for landlords, but it’s anything but easy for tenants,” said Bryan Slaughter, MichieHamlett senior counsel. “Once they are behind on rent, the high extra fees charged by Senex make it difficult for our clients to ever get back on track.”

The suit alleges that Senex violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by sending notices purporting to come from landlords, but which were actually drafted and mailed by Senex. The notices do not contain federally-mandated language disclosing Senex’s identity as a debt collector, or describing the procedure that recipients can use to challenge their accuracy. This business practice hurts tenants, costs them substantial money, and puts them at unnecessary and repeated risk of eviction.

Senex then quickly files eviction actions in bulk, generating more costs to tenants and relying on sometimes outdated or inaccurate information from landlords. “This practice goes beyond a simple technical violation of the law. It has real costs to our clients, financial and otherwise, because it can ruin their rental record and their chances to find other housing in the future,” said Kim Rolla, Legal Aid Justice Center’s lead attorney on the case

“It’s been really hard for my family to keep up with all these extra charges,” said Teri Crawford, a named plaintiff in the class-action suit. “I just want stability, to keep a roof over my kids’ heads. I pay my rent. But it seems like every time we’re even a little late, we get hit with a bunch of fees.”

For More Information Contact:
Kim Rolla
Tel: 434-326-8545
Email: kim@justice4all.org

PDF Press Release

Complaint and Attachments:
Class Action Complaint
Exhibits to Complaint

H.U.D. Settles Richmond Discrimination Complaint

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Settlement requires reforms to Richmond’s maintenance code enforcement, fair housing practices, and services to limited English proficient residents.

A civil rights complaint filed last year with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) by Latino mobile home park residents against the city of Richmond was resolved last week by agreement between HUD and the parties. The agreement ends a year-long investigation by HUD into allegations that Richmond unfairly targeted the largely Latino-occupied mobile home communities for unprecedented, intensive maintenance code enforcement and that the city refused to offer interpretation or translation as required by federal law. Under the agreement, Richmond will pay $30,000 in damages to the complainants and will take numerous steps to ensure future compliance with the federal Fair Housing Act, to provide meaningful access to city services in Spanish and other languages, and to provide assistance to mobile home park residents affected by its code enforcement activities.

“We are very pleased with this resolution to the HUD complaint,” according to Phil Storey, attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, who represented the residents along with the law firm of Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C. “The agreement has teeth, so we are confident that it will make a real difference in the way the city deals with mobile home park residents, immigrants, and other minorities going forward in terms of fair housing rights and language access.”

The agreement will remain in force for four years, during which the city of Richmond will be subject to HUD oversight and must submit regular compliance reports to the agency. Some of Richmond’s obligations under the agreement include: performing a new analysis of impediments to fair-housing choice and ensuring that its use of funding from HUD addresses those impediments, including in mobile home parks; regularly training the staff of key departments to protect fair-housing rights and to provide interpretation and translation services to city residents free of charge; posting notices in city offices informing people of the availability of free interpretation upon request; ensuring that city websites and telephone voice response systems are available in Spanish as well as English; appointing a Fair Housing Compliance Officer and a Language Access Coordinator, who will oversee and report regularly to HUD on the city’s compliance with the terms of the agreement.

“The reach of the HUD agreement is very good for the residents of mobile home parks, but also for immigrants and other vulnerable people throughout Richmond,” says Cliff Zatz, partner with Crowell & Moring, which provided pro bono representation on the case. “This is a good example of how federal agencies like HUD work to protect people’s civil rights.”

Resources

HUD Richmond Compliance Agreement (PDF)
HUD Richmond Acuerdo (Spanish) (PDF)
Press Release (PDF)
Aviso de Prensa (PDF)

Media Coverage

Richmond to hire fair housing officer, pay additional $30K in 2nd trailer park bias settlement (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/4/16)

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