We change lives one courtroom at a time, and the law is our tool. But the fight for housing justice will never be won by lawyers alone.
Every day in Atlanta, landlords carry out illegal evictions. They toss their tenants out without the benefit of court filings or a hearing, often because rent is a few days late. Most of the tenants who call AVLF have no prior warning of these “self-help” evictions. They simply return home to find that their key no longer fits in the lock, and peer through their own windows to see that all of their belongings have been removed or ransacked.
AVLF distributes children’s books during every Saturday Lawyer Clinic, where volunteer attorneys meet with clients about housing and employment issues. The reason why might surprise you.
It never even occurred to me that My Atlanta wasn’t the Atlanta: that my perception was limited by my footprints, which were guided by my privilege.
Today, as an attorney working on behalf of low-income clients facing housing instability, there is something sanitized about my profession and my persona. When I meet with clients, I presume that I can access all kinds of personal information about them – but that they will not learn anything about me. I am neutral, unmarked, The Professional – not a human being with personality quirks, and certainly not a human being with a first-hand experience of poverty. Perhaps attorneys have more in common with our clients than we are used to looking for. And perhaps sharing those stories, forging those connections, is worth the risk of letting our professional masks drop.
On October 20, AVLF honored the following award winners at the Atlanta Bar Association’s Celebrating Service Luncheon:
Safe Families Office Firm of the Year: Jones Day; Safe Families Office Volunteer of the Year: Richard G. Farnsworth, Farnsworth Law, LLC; Guardian ad Litem of the Year: Brandy Alexander, The Alexander Firm, LLC; Safe and Stable Homes Firm of the Year: PwC; Safe and Stable Homes Volunteer of the Year: John H. Rains IV of Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore
Imagine this: You’ve reached the end of your work day and you’re heading home. You shut down your computer, grab your briefcase and umbrella, and head to your car. As you ease out of the parking garage and into Atlanta rush hour traffic, you start thinking about what’s waiting for you at home. What do you have in the fridge for dinner? What veggies did you pick up at the grocery store last weekend? Should you splurge and order delivery? Or if your other half beat you home, maybe dinner will be coming together already, something simmering on the stove, delicious smells radiating from the hot oven. You make a mental note to throw a load of laundry into the washing machine before sitting down to eat.
In 2013, Susan and her boyfriend, Juan, rented a home in South Fulton. A few months later, Susan was hospitalized, and Juan stayed with friends nearby so he could visit her frequently. When Susan was released, she and Juan returned to the home, only to discover that their landlord had turned off the water, changed the locks, and pawed through their belongings.
My client, Mary Jackson, and I stood in the hallway outside Fulton County Courtroom 1B – eviction court. Ms. Jackson rubbed her reddened eyes. She had just finished describing the conditions inside her rented home: a broken furnace that forced her and her children to huddle around space heaters; a non-functioning oven; uneven floors that dipped dangerously downward; holes in the doors that let the cold air in. She listed all of the times she called her landlord for help, only to be brushed off. The landlord listened placidly, his face unmoving. Finally he leaned in toward me. “It’s not,” he said with disdain, “like I’m a slumlord.”
Over the course of 38 Saturdays in 2014, 286 volunteer attorneys met with 353 low-income Atlantans via AVLF’s Saturday Lawyer Program.
Most of these clients – over 80 percent of them – came to us because of problems with their landlords: lack of repairs, unreturned security deposits, illegal evictions. These clients included Ms. Murphy, who told us that she slept with cotton balls in her ears to keep out the cockroach infestation while she slept. They included Ms. Watson, whose landlord ignored her complaints about the cracking, sagging ceiling – until the ceiling caved in on her and damaged her neck. The remaining clients were evenly split between unpaid wage issues and consumer debt disputes.