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Immigrant Tenants To Protest Offensive Remarks by Major Real Estate Developer
“The lack of affordable housing is a crisis. We need solutions, not stereotypes.”

On Thursday, September 1, 2016, at 11:00am, immigrant tenants from Northern Virginia will join together in protest of offensive and stereotypical comments made by David Hillman, chairman and CEO of Southern Management Corporation. The protest will take place in front of the offices of Southern Management, at 1950 Old Gallows Road, Vienna VA 22182.

In responding to a tragic apartment explosion in Silver Spring that killed seven immigrant tenants including two children, Mr. Hillman said, “They’re not as poor as people think. Immigrants have different needs than native-born Americans. To them, living three to four to a room is not an inconvenience.” (Story)  These comments, by a major real estate developer who manages many predominately immigrant apartment complexes, embody a pernicious stereotype about immigrant families that they are undeserving of just and dignified housing conditions.

“When I heard about what Mr. Hillman said, I felt offended, like he was calling me something less than human,” said Everth Sanchez, an immigrant tenant in Falls Church. “Does he think my children don’t deserve a quiet place to do their homework in the evening? Does he think our community enjoys living with three families to a two-bedroom apartment?”

“The lack of affordable housing is a crisis. We need solutions, not stereotypes,” said Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, Organizing Coordinator of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Apartments in some of the worst-maintained complexes in Annandale and Falls Church cost around $2000/mo. But the minimum wage in Virginia is still $7.25/hr., and many immigrant workers are paid even less than that. Housing is a right, and it is being denied to our community.”

“The wait list for affordable housing is a mile long, and many immigrants—even legal immigrants with statuses like TPS or DACA—don’t even qualify,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, Legal Director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program. “Immigrant families, even with two parents working full-time jobs in restaurants or construction, are paying most of their income in rent. If they get sick and miss work, they don’t get paid, they fall behind on rent, and they can find themselves evicted so quickly it leaves their head spinning. I can’t count the number of tenants I’ve represented who paid their base rent in full, but were still placed in eviction proceedings for missing a utility payment or some other junk fee of as little as $250, which balloons to $1000 with all the late fees and legal fees that the landlords add on.”

“Mr. Hillman should keep in mind that the protection of the federal Fair Housing Act extends to all tenants, even immigrants,” said Mary Bauer, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Such statements can send immigrants the message that they are not wanted here. That can violate the law.” Immigrant tenants and their supporters will be protesting in front of the offices of Southern Management to demand that David Hillman apologize and retract his comments, and instead of peddling in stereotypes, work together with immigrant community leaders to find a solution to the affordable housing crisis for immigrants in Northern Virginia, such as committing to offer a greater percentage of apartments in every development he manages for families below 40 percent of the area median income.

Resources:

Press Release:

Washington Post story referenced in the press release:

 

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Federal civil rights complaint asserts that RPS discipline policies discriminate against African-American students and students with disabilities.

RICHMOND, VA Two students and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have filed an anti-discrimination complaint against Richmond Public Schools with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

RPS’ discipline policies punish African-American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers, the complaint asserts. During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students with disabilities were 12.91 times more likely than white students without disabilities to be short-term suspended, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Education.

The complainants are represented by the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

“These disparities cannot be explained by differences in student behavior,” said Rachael Deane, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Rather, there is overwhelming evidence that the school division’s discipline policies are excessively punitive and lack clear standards for application, leading to subjective interpretation and selective enforcement.”

Complainants allege that the student code fails to clearly define misconduct and prescribes overly harsh consequences for relatively minor misbehavior.  “The ACLU is concerned about the wide disparities in the application of student discipline based on race and disability,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Leslie Mehta. “Overly punitive discipline policies damage the learning environment, deny African-American students and students with disabilities of their right to an education and push children into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students made up about 76 percent of the total student population in RPS but were issued 93 percent of short-term suspensions, 98 percent of long-term suspensions, and 97 percent of expulsions. African-American students were 5.69 times more likely than white students to be short-term suspended. Students with disabilities were 2.77 times more likely than students without disabilities to be short-term suspended. Students with disabilities made up 16 percent of the student population but were issued 31 percent of short-term suspensions, 30 percent of long-term suspensions, and 63 percent of expulsions.

“The school division must conduct an unflinching examination of these disparities and adopt strategies to improve school climate and ensure that discipline policies are fair for all students,” said Lynetta Thompson, president of the Richmond NAACP.

The complaint calls for alternative approaches to discipline that would address instances of student misconduct while improving overall school climate. It argues that that Richmond Public Schools could eliminate discrimination and more effectively ensure safe and orderly schools through the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, social and emotional learning programs and restorative justice processes.

“Suspensions hurt everyone. Students who are removed from school are at a greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said Deane. “We hope this complaint leads to a positive transformation within the city schools.”

Resources

Full Complaint
Complaint Appendices
Press Release
Fact Sheet
Office for Civil Rights School Discipline Discrimination Guidance
Office for Civil Rights Resolution Agreement Database

Media Coverage

Virginia School District Disproportionately Punishes Black Students, Complaint Says
(TIME, 8/24/16)

Black students file civil rights complaint against Richmond schools over discipline practices
(Washington Post, 8/24/16)

Students, NAACP file federal civil rights complaint against Richmond Public Schools
(Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/24/16)

2 students, NAACP file anti-discrimination complaint against Richmond Public Schools
(ABC 8 News, 8/24/16)

2 students, NAACP file anti-discrimination lawsuit against RPS*
(CBS 6, 8/24/16)

Complaint: Black Students Punished More Harshly Than Whites
(ABC News, 8/24/16)

Federal Civil Rights Complaint Filed Against Richmond Public Schools
(NBC 29, 8/24/16)

ACLU: 2 students, Richmond NAACP file anti-discrimination lawsuit against RPS*
(NBC 12, 8/24/16)

Students File Discrimination Complaint Against Richmond Public Schools
(Virginia Public Radio, 8/24/16)

Harsher discipline of Black students spurs lawsuit in Va.*
(The Philadelphia Tribune, 8/26/16)

*The action was an administrative complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, not a lawsuit.

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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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Lawsuit Challenges Virginia’s Unconstitutional System of Suspending Licenses of Low-Income Drivers Who Are Unable to Pay Court Debts

 

Commonwealth Fails to Consider Debtor’s Financial Circumstances or Offer Alternatives to Hundreds of Thousands of Virginians Who Can’t Pay Costs and Fines

 

Virginia is trapping hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in debt and poverty by suspending their driver’s licenses for failure to pay unreasonable court costs and fines, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) against the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

The complaint asserts that Virginia fails to inquire into the reason for non-payment or consider debtors’ financial circumstances before suspending their licenses. It calls these “severe and coercive” policies discriminatory and in violation of the “fundamental principles of due process equal protection” of the laws embedded in the United States Constitution.

Nearly 1 million Virginia drivers currently have suspended licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines. For many drivers that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work, forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking incarceration for driving illegally.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, argues that these practices trap low-income Virginians in a vicious cycle, depriving them of reliable lawful transportation to take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, and “paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts.” By contrast, the lawsuit notes that wealthier drivers have little difficulty covering court debt and retaining their licenses.

The filing follows the release of an analysis last month by LAJC that found most Virginia General District Courts are disregarding recommendations issued last summer by the Judicial Council of Virginia aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court costs and fines.

Virginia makes it particularly difficult for debtors to have their licenses reinstated. A person convicted of reckless driving in Virginia risks no more than a six-month suspension of their license, while a person who fails to pay court costs faces an indefinite suspension, often lasting years. In FY2015 alone, the DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver’s license suspensions resulting from unpaid court costs or fines, more than a third of which (38%) were for offenses unrelated to driving.

“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia’s form of a debtors’ prison,” said Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at LAJC. “Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses.”

The case of Robert Taylor, a National Guard veteran and one of four named plaintiffs in the case, is typical of the challenges faced by low-income debtors with suspended licenses. Taylor, 28, owes money to at least four different Virginia courts, none of which assessed his ability to pay before levying court costs and fines and suspending his license. Since his offense of running a red light in April 2014, Taylor’s license has been suspended repeatedly for non-payment. Taylor, who struggles with health issues, lost his job and also faces thousands of dollars in medical and student loan debt. Without a driver’s license, he has been unable to guarantee prospective employers that he will have reliable transportation if hired. His suspended license led at least one employer to rescind a job offer.

“I don’t understand why the system was so quick to punish me for something I was eager to fix,” said Taylor, who has spent multiple days in jail for driving with a suspended license. “All I want to do is drive to work, make a decent living, and pay my debts.”

The complaint charges that the state has steadily increased court fees in order to fund its basic operations, and authorized localities to do the same. In 1989, court costs for all misdemeanor or traffic violations were $20. Now they can run more than $100, including local option fees, before adding in any charges for specific “services” such as blood withdrawal, jail admission or even reimbursement of fees paid to attorneys appointed by the state to represent people who are too poor to afford one.

The complaint calls for an injunction against the DMV, preventing it from entering orders of suspension against the licenses of low-income drivers until Virginia implements a system that properly assesses drivers’ ability to pay court debt. It also calls for the DMV to immediately reinstate the licenses of all drivers who were penalized for inability to pay. The lawsuit comes as the Virginia Supreme Court considers new rules regarding payment plans and the Virginia General Assembly prepares to hold a legislative study commission on the issue.

“We applaud the efforts of the Virginia Supreme Court and General Assembly to tackle court debt, and aim to complement those efforts with this lawsuit,” said Ciolfi. “When private creditors go to collect a debt, the law prevents them from depriving people of the means to meet the basic needs of their families and earn a livelihood; why should the Commonwealth be able to use such an extreme measure that effectively does just that? Low-income debtors deserve a path to self-sufficiency and self-respect. We hope this lawsuit gives them that path.”

Resources
Complaint (PDF)
Exhibit A (PDF)
Exhibit B (PDF)
Exhibit C (PDF)
Exhibit D (PDF)

Fact Sheet (PDF)

Media Coverage

Group files legal challenge to Virginia driver’s license suspensions for the poor (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/6/16)

Lawsuit seeks to stop suspension of Virginia licenses over unpaid fines (Daily Press, 7/6/16)

 

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Sad studentVirginia schools have a crisis on their hands. Waves of students are being pushed out of school though the widespread, discriminatory overuse of suspension and expulsion.

Suspended Progress, a new report released today by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center reveals that, last school year, Virginia schools issued over 126,000 out-of-school suspensions to approximately 70,000 students. The report details disturbing findings from the 2014-15 school year, including:

  • One-fifth of all suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students;
  • The majority of suspensions were for relatively minor, non-violent, subjective misbehavior like “disruption,” “defiance,” and “disrespect;”
  • African American students and students with disabilities were suspended at hugely disparate rates; and
  • Statewide suspension rates flattened out after years of steady progress.

“Suspension hurts everyone. Suspended students are at a significantly greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said Angela Ciolfi, JustChildren’s Legal Director and co-author of the report. “Worse yet, suspension damages school climate, public safety, and the economy.” The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice have been pushing states across the country to reduce school exclusion, and many states have made tremendous strides in limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, investing in prevention and alternatives, and holding districts accountable.

JustChildren’s report also provides information about proven behavioral interventions and alternatives to suspension and expulsion, including MyTeachingPartner, social and emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, threat assessments, and restorative practices. These programs and frameworks have been shown to both improve school safety and climate and reduce suspensions and disparities. “What’s so sad is that we know what works,” said Jason Langberg, a JustChildren attorney and co-author of the report. “We just haven’t had the political will to abandon the failed ‘zero tolerance’ mentality and to begin providing educators with the resources they need to ensure schools are safe and supportive.”

The report concludes with common sense recommendations for lawmakers and policymakers. JustChildren calls upon the General Assembly, Virginia Board of Education, and local school board members to act with a sense of urgency in promoting positive school climate and keeping students in school and on a path toward graduation and success in adulthood.

Press Release

Report

For more information, contact Angela Ciolfi at (434) 529-1810 or angela@justice4all.org.

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Future code enforcement to be more responsive to vulnerable residents’ needs; language access plan to help City residents access services.

Thirty-three current and former mobile home park residents have reached a negotiated settlement to their housing discrimination lawsuit against the City of Richmond. The residents, represented pro bono by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firm of Crowell & Moring LLP, had alleged that an aggressive housing code enforcement campaign violated their civil rights. Under the terms of the settlement, the City of Richmond will institute policies that will help minimize the displacement of mobile home residents in future enforcement activities and will better serve residents who are not fluent in English.

“This settlement is a positive outcome for our clients and for all mobile home park residents in the City of Richmond,” said Marie Diveley, Crowell & Moring senior counsel. “The City has agreed to take important steps that will not only benefit vulnerable mobile home park residents, but will also ensure that limited English speakers can access City services without unnecessary language barriers.”

The suit, which was filed in federal court in Richmond last August, alleged that the City violated the civil rights of the residents by targeting mobile home parks, where residents are mainly Latino, for aggressive code enforcement with the expectation that scores of vulnerable families would likely be displaced. According to the lawsuit, the City also refused to provide adequate interpretation and translation services for the limited English proficient residents, in violation of federal civil rights laws.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement the City will: work with a non-profit partner organization to assist mobile home park residents in addressing maintenance code violations prior to park-wide inspections; provide notices of code violations and appeal forms in Spanish to residents who are proficient in Spanish but not English; institute a language-access plan pursuant to federal civil rights guidelines and train City employees on their obligations under the plan; arrange for Fair Housing Act training for certain departments of City government; and provide modest monetary assistance to the plaintiffs, for repair or relocation, and to assist more generally with repairs in mobile home parks. With the agreement, the City also acknowledges that mobile homes play an important role in the affordable housing supply of Richmond.

“This settlement is the culmination of a long process of negotiation to address serious concerns on both sides,” according to Phil Storey, the Legal Aid Justice Center’s lead attorney on the case. “We are pleased that the City and the residents were able to reach a mutually agreeable resolution, thanks to assistance from Mark Rubin and VCU’s Center for Consensus Building.”

Resources

Press Release (PDF)

Aviso de Prensa (PDF)

Lawsuit (PDF)

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Driven Deeper into Debt: Unrealistic Repayment Options Hurt Low-Income Court Debtors

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 8.05.39 AMThe majority of Virginia General District Courts have either disregarded or fallen significantly short of recommendations issued last summer by the Judicial Council of Virginia, the state’s top judicial policy making body, aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court fines and costs, according to an analysis released today by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC).

As a result, hundreds of thousands of low-income residents have their driver’s licenses suspended when they are unable to cover court costs. For many drivers that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work and forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking incarceration for driving illegally.

LAJC calls on Virginia courts to do
much more to ensure that state residents who are unable to pay their court debts aren’t trapped by ill-conceived payment policies that are unrealistic and counter-productive.  It also notes that indigent Virginians should receive extra consideration, such as foregoing driver’s license suspension when poverty precludes payment. “These individuals should be afforded a way to maintain licenses, and their livelihood, despite their poverty,” the analysis states.

Full Report (PDF)

Full Press Release (PDF)

See our Campaign Page

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Federal Class Action Challenges Antiquated Virginia “Habitual Drunkard” Law That Jails Homeless Individuals

The Legal Aid Justice Center and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP filed a class action lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” statute, to the extent it criminalizes the possession or consumption of alcohol by homeless alcoholics.

The complaint asserts that Commonwealth’s Attorneys Offices across Virginia have used the state’s outdated “habitual drunkard” statute, or Interdiction Statute (Va. Code § 4.1-322), to repeatedly incarcerate homeless individuals, violating their constitutional rights by punishing homeless alcoholics for having the disease of alcoholism. It also violates their right to due process by criminalizing the possession or consumption of alcohol – an otherwise lawful activity – without required constitutional protections. The complaint also challenges the statute as unconstitutionally vague because it fails to define “habitual drunkard” and encourages arbitrary police enforcement.

Resources
Full Complaint (PDF)
Press Release (PDF)
Fact Sheet (PDF)

Media Coverage
Charlottesville Group Challenging ‘Habitual Drunkard’ Law (WVIR-TV NBC29, 3/3/16)
Challenging a State Law that Jails Alcoholics (WVTR-Radio IQ, 3/3/16)
LAJC Challenges Habitual Drunkard Statute (CBS19 Newsplex, 3/3/16)
Lawsuit Seeks to End Jail Time for the Homeless (Roanoke Times, 3/3/16)
Lawsuit: Officials Use Statute to Punish Homeless Alcoholics (The Virginia-Pilot, 3/4/16)
Attorneys File Class-Action Lawsuit Against Virginia’s ‘Habitual Drunkard’ Laws (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3/6/16)

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Protecting Childhood: A Blueprint for Developmentally Appropriate School Policing in Virginia

The JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center has released a report identifying the problems of placing law enforcement officers in schools. The report provides a list of detailed recommendations that will improve school safety, increase academic achievement, and help break down the school-to-prison pipeline.

School security personnel are increasingly commonplace in Virginia’s public schools. There are two types. School resource officers (SROs) are certified law enforcement officers who are typically employed by local law enforcement agencies and assigned to provide coverage to public schools. School security officers (SSOs) are individuals employed by school divisions to maintain order and discipline in their assigned schools. To date, little analysis of school policing in the Commonwealth exists. This report aims to change that.

More info here.

Report says Virginia should require school police training and alter laws to reduce arrests (Center for Public Integrity)

Full Report (PDF)

 

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PLAINTIFFS IN HOUSING DISCRIMINATION LAWSUIT ASK COURT FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AGAINST CITY OF RICHMOND

Residents of mobile home parks seek protection from threat of homelessness from discriminatory code enforcement while civil rights suit is pending.

Richmond, Virginia, October 9, 2015—Current and former mobile home park residents, plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Richmond, filed a motion yesterday asking the federal court to prohibit the City from condemning or issuing further threats against mobile homes while the case moves forward.  The lawsuit was filed on August 18 alleging violations of the federal Fair Housing Act and other civil rights laws because the City has targeted overwhelmingly Latino-occupied mobile home parks for a campaign of aggressive building code enforcement.  The filing, asking the court for a preliminary injunction, argues that mobile home park residents suffer constant anxiety, worrying day-to-day that the City will condemn their homes and leave them suddenly homeless.

Resources

Motion for Preliminary Injunction (PDF)

Memorandum of Law with Exhibits (PDF)

News item from filing of lawsuit