As Public Housing Becomes Privatized, UVA-Trained Advocates Stand Up for Tenants

Former Classmates, Current Students Wield Federal Law to Protect Vulnerable Low-Income Residents
Kim Rolla and Helen O'Beirne Hardiman

Class of 2013 graduates and friends Kim Rolla and Helen O'Beirne Hardiman are winning fair-housing battles as co-counsel.

May 12, 2017

Helen Hardiman and Kim Rolla, 2013 graduates of the University of Virginia School of Law, have a message for any company in Virginia that seeks to take advantage of a new government program to redevelop old public housing for low-income residents: Follow the law, or face a challenge.

Hardiman is vice president of law and policy for the advocacy group Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia. Rolla is housing team coordinator and staff attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center. The two groups, along with UVA Law students, are working together to challenge violations of federal housing law in the wake of privatization.

"Nearly 50 years since passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, housing discrimination is alive and well," Hardiman said. "While it might not be as overt, it is just as insidious."

The U.S. Department of Housing And Urban Development opened an investigation in March into allegations of discrimination by Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority and its corporate counterpart, Community Housing Partners, which in 2014 razed the Hopewell, Virginia, public housing community formerly known as Langston Park. The entities built new apartments on the site, now called the Summit at Hopewell. Hardiman and Rolla's groups are representing nine current or former residents whose rights were violated during relocation for construction, or who returned to experience discrimination at the Summit."

The redevelopment was the site of a tragedy last year.

"A woman with disabilities died from complications of a heart problem that her housing provider refused to accommodate by transferring her from an upper-level unit to a first floor unit," Hardiman alleged.

Another woman lost custody of her infant child at a hearing in which the child's father pointed to uninhabitable conditions of the unit she was transferred into during redevelopment, Hardiman and Rolla said.

Letting children play outside unsupervised was also problematic under the new lease terms, they said.

"Once the new housing was complete and some families were allowed to return, single mothers had to make an impossible choice: Let their kids play outside and risk notices of lease violation with threats to call Child Protective Services or force their kids to stay cooped up inside new apartments that were smaller than before," Hardiman said. "The fair housing rights of people with disabilities and families with children were effectively ignored both before, during and after conversion of the property."

The Summit project was Virginia's first under the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, an initiative that allows housing authorities to offer tax incentives to private investors who finance the redevelopment of some of the nation's rundown public housing stock.

With $6 billion in cuts currently proposed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rolla said the RAD program, which is attractive to officials because it leverages private equity, could expand beyond its current "pilot program" cap of 185,000 units of public housing.

"Leveraging private equity means permanently privatizing these units of public housing, which has a profound impact on tenants' lives and the long-term affordability of this housing," Rolla said. "If the cap is lifted, the problems at the Summit at Hopewell could be the tip of the wave, unless we act now to ensure the greatest possible protections for tenants."

Hardiman and Rolla's efforts have been facilitated by Andrew Ognibene, who, as a second-year law student and a member of Civil Rights Litigation Pro Bono Clinic, helped finalize five-figure partial settlements this year for a handful of Summit residents.

"Kim and Helen are two outstanding advocates, and because they're so conscientious about my clinic experience, I've been able to witness every facet of the case since I've joined," Ognibene said. "I feel really lucky; I know that working alongside such a smart, committed team now will make me a better lawyer when I graduate."

Community Housing Partners is now in the process of converting a 100-unit elderly and disabled public housing high-rise, Kippax Place, also in Hopewell, under the RAD program. Ognibene has helped file and resolve a number of individual reasonable accommodation requests at the location.

"One resident had a note from her physician that it was unsafe for her to be alone in her apartment and could cause her serious harm, including death," Rolla said. "Andrew helped navigate a complex landscape of federally subsidized housing and civil rights law to get the client transferred to an apartment large enough for her daughter to move in. The client is now living happily and safely in her new apartment with the care she needs."

Hardiman and Rolla are eager to continue sharing their passion for housing law, and said there will be many more opportunities for students to gain experience on their projects. The alums first collaborated when they were students in the Litigation and Housing Law Clinic, which Rolla now helps lead as an adjunct professor.

"It gives me great confidence to know that Kim now co-teaches the housing law clinic at UVA, where more budding lawyers can learn about the importance of fair housing," Hardiman said.

The alums said the work they are doing is all the more rewarding because it allows them to maintain a friendship they began in their first year of law school.

"The professional and personal relationship we forged at UVA not only benefits us but makes us more effective advocates for our clients," Rolla said.

The Civil Rights Pro Bono Clinic will begin accepting applications in August for the 2017-18 school-year.  Contact Kimberly Emery for more information.

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