June 15, 2018 Dialogue

Grantee Spotlight | Everything’s Coming Up Aces in Virginia

Statewide Legal Aid Team Uses Bank of America Settlement Funds to Create Access to Credit, Employment, and Shelter

Christie Marra

Unlike many states that have consolidated their legal aid into one or two statewide programs, Virginia remains a land of many legal services providers. There are ten programs in Virginia, four of which receive no federal Legal Services Corporation funding and work with the six federally-funded programs to provide a full range of services.

Mark Braley, the executive director of Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, the statewide funding and oversight umbrella for these legal services providers, saw the Bank of America settlement funding as an opportunity to get legal aid providers across Virginia working closer together on systemic issues affecting Virginia's poor. "The usual way of dealing with new funding is to divide it up among the programs according to poverty population and let each program decide how best to spend it. But that can mean different levels of legal aid service depending on where clients live. And it means the delivery system is sometimes slow to respond to a statewide crisis."

So Braley decided to take a new approach to the distribution of the Bank of America funds. "Each program received exactly the same amount of money to fund one full-time or two part-time attorneys dedicated to working on the statewide Bank of America Team," he explained. The team quickly renamed itself ACES (Advocates for Credit, Employment, and Shelter) and added two client-community members who are also board members of two of the legal aid programs. Early on, the ACES team decided to take a 50/50 approach to their advocacy—fifty percent of the team's work would be on individual cases related to foreclosure prevention and other types of consumer, housing, and employment cases, and the other fifty percent would focus on advancing statewide campaigns developed by the team as a whole to foster client-community development.

Braley emphasized from the outset that the ACES team should work not only with each other, but also with other members of Virginia's legal aid community to combat the injustices that keep their clients from moving out of poverty. According to ACES attorney Pat Levy-Lavelle, the approach is working well. "Injustices to low-income Virginians are often big and systemic, and they touch areas across Virginia. The ACES team stretches across Virginia, and it allows us to work collaboratively across Virginia's legal aid programs, strategically and systemically toward big solutions," Levy-Lavelle explained.

For the past few years, ACES has focused on a campaign to help clients with criminal records obtain decent and affordable rental housing. When the ACES campaign started, none of the legal aid in Virginia routinely accepted tenant screening cases, and as a result, very few low-income Virginians realized that being denied rental housing because of an arrest or a minor conviction could be challenged under the Fair Housing Act. Further, the housing counselors and others working with low-income tenants had no idea that it was unlawful in certain circumstances to refuse to rent to someone solely because they had a criminal record. But the ACES attorneys knew it, and they mobilized to provide training on the topic throughout Virginia.

"The Fair Housing Act doesn't protect people with criminal records from discrimination. But it does make it unlawful to discriminate based on race. When a policy that seems fair actually hurts people of one race more than people of other races, that policy probably violates the Fair Housing Act," ACES attorney Marty Wegbreit tells the housing counselors and others he trains in Richmond. He explains that because of various systemic biases in the criminal justice system, people of color are more likely to have criminal records than white people. "So a housing provider who bans anyone with a criminal record ends up discriminating against blacks and Hispanics, even if he didn't intend to, and that's a violation of the law." By educating these non-lawyers on what is known as the disparate impact theory of fair housing, Marty and the other ACES attorneys arm them with enough knowledge to spot a potentially unlawful tenant screening policy and direct the affected tenants to contact legal aid. And, since the ACES attorneys use the exact same training materials at their trainings all over Virginia, the entire community of service providers working with low-income tenants have the same information and can reinforce one another's knowledge. ACES attorneys have trained hundreds of housing counselors and others on this issue.

As a result of these trainings, low-income tenants who were denied rental housing because of criminal records started coming to legal aid across Virginia for help. In one case, an apartment complex in rural Louisa County denied a mother's application to add her adult mentally disabled son to her lease. Because the son had a recent misdemeanor conviction for a public morals offense, the apartment complex denied the application and told his mother she had to wait three years before reapplying to add him to the lease. When the mother came to legal aid, she explained that her son had been off the medication he took for schizoaffective disorder when he committed the offense. Two ACES attorneys—one from the local program and one from the statewide support center—co-counseled on the case, successfully arguing before the federal district court that the apartment complex was required to review the son's application without considering his conviction since it resulted from his mental disability. Not only did they get a favorable outcome for the client, but the ACES attorneys also made good law with this case, as the federal court in the Western District of Virginia had not previously considered the factual situation.

Through their new campaign, the ACES team hopes to improve the rights and the lives of low-income residents of manufactured home communities across Virginia. Almost all of the manufactured home communities in Virginia are owned and managed by for-profit investors, many of whom do not comply with the basic requirements of the law such as offering residents a one-year lot lease and posting the law governing manufactured home communities in the community itself. Some go further and commit violations that jeopardize the health and safety of the residents, such as failing to keep the sewer or electrical systems in good working order. And manufactured home community owners in Virginia are known to take advantage of evicting residents by selling the homes they leave behind to new residents, often without obtaining title to the home and sometimes through questionable rent-to-own deals.

The ACES attorneys have created "Know Your Rights" materials on all these issues and plan to conduct workshops for manufactured home community residents across the state similar to what they did with their training on fair housing law and tenant screening policies. They're partnering with two groups: the Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia (MHCCV) and Enroll Virginia. The MHCCV collects data about manufactured home communities and helps connect service providers to community residents. The MHCCV will help ACES attorneys connect with residents and help them mobilize groups of residents who want to collectively purchase their communities when they are sold. Presently there are no resident-owned manufactured home communities in Virginia. Enroll Virginia provides information on health insurance available under the Affordable Care Act and helps people enroll in the best insurance plan for them. The Enroll Virginia staff will be doing presentations along with the ACES attorneys.

"I'm so glad that we're looking at how to provide legal information and representation to more residents of manufactured home communities. Blue Ridge Legal Services surveyed many of these communities near Harrisonburg, and not a single one had the law which describes the rights and responsibilities of residents posted, even though that's required," noted ACES attorney Dathan Young. Young had one of the first large-scale successes of this campaign in a case where the community owner wouldn't give the residents one-year leases and instead evicted them with only thirty days' notice. As a result of Young's legal work, the community owner provided every resident with a one year written lot lease.

In addition to working on these campaigns, ACES attorneys are stopping foreclosures across Virginia. Here are some examples of the cases they've handled:

  • The ACES attorney in Suffolk represented a sixty-seven-year-old widow whose husband had removed her from the deed to qualify for a reverse mortgage. After the husband's death, the mortgage company began foreclosure proceedings. Thanks to the ACES attorney's work to get the widow's name back on the deed and on the reverse mortgage, she will be able to stay in her home for the rest of her life.
  • The ACES attorney in Richmond was contacted by a sixty-nine-year-old divorced African-American woman sixteen days before the foreclosure sale. The ACES attorney stopped the foreclosure sale and requested an accounting of all the client's payments. After having to stop a second foreclosure sale, the ACES attorney finally received the accounting which revealed that one of the client's payments had not been credited to the account, making every statement sent after that incorrect. The ACES attorney negotiated an agreement under which the client could reinstate her mortgage. She remains in her home today, making monthly payments.

Christie Marra

Team Leader and Staff Attorney

Christie Marra is the Virginia ACES team leader and a staff attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.