This Fair Housing Month commentary is by attorney Rachel Batterson, who directs the Housing Discrimination Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid.
It’s April. As the crocuses open their delicate petals in front of my house, home buying and spring cleaning are in full swing. Many days, it’s raining and a bit raw, but the grass is greener, and I’m reveling in the longer days. It’s also time again to celebrate Fair Housing Month and to think about what kinds of communities we want to build and live in. As Vermont uses federal stimulus money to build affordable housing all around the state, NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) reactions are cropping up like weeds.
So, I’m issuing a challenge. Be a YIMBY. Show up and say, “Yes, I do want affordable housing in my backyard.” Let’s make all of Vermont’s communities welcoming and inclusive for all.
The Fair Housing Act was a central part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights platform and it faced more opposition than any other part of the Civil Rights Act. In fact, it was only days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that Congress finally found the political will to enact it. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate against someone in every type of home and in planning and zoning decisions.
The Fair Housing Act is as much about communities as it is about homes. Your home is your base, and it determines nearly everything else about your life: access to fresh food, green spaces, cultural amenities, environmental hazards, and even your social circle. Did you know that you can predict a child’s educational and economic attainment and long-term health by where they grow up?
That’s because, more than fifty years after the Fair Housing Act was enacted, we still segregate our neighborhoods by race and income. And then we put most of the environmental hazards in poor and BIPOC communities and most of the amenities in White, affluent ones. Vermonters of color are subjected to racialized harassment, microaggressions, and over-policing. If you haven’t already, check out the “I Am Vermont Too” Project and the work of Professors Stephanie Seguino and Nancy Brooks.
Vermont makes it harder for people of color to buy homes. Vermont’s 2020 Housing Needs Assessment shows that the rate of Black homeownership in Vermont is significantly lower than White homeownership. Homeownership rates for Black Vermonters are also significantly lower here than in the rest of the nation.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Vermont’s housing crisis. And it’s really bad. Finding a home is the hardest for people who rent. There just aren’t enough apartments. And if you do find one, the rent is as expensive as a mortgage. What do you do if you can’t afford that? NIMBY opposition to below-market rental housing, especially if the housing allows children, has limited or entirely excluded such housing from many of Vermont’s communities. You can wait years on waiting lists to find an affordable home—if you’re lucky. Most of those apartments are in lower income, lower opportunity neighborhoods.
Vermonters say they support affordable housing. But when it comes time to build that housing in their community, they fight it. Affordable housing is great, just not in my backyard. NIMBY opposition makes it expensive to build below market homes. So fewer homes get built and most of them in low-opportunity locations where there’s less opposition. This concentrates poverty. Middle- and upper-income children who grow up in neighborhoods where everyone is just like them aren’t well prepared for life. And low-income children are less prepared for the workforce. That’s bad for Vermont.
So, what do we do? Let’s make sure that every Vermont town, suburb, exurb, and village has a range of housing, appropriate to the scale of the town, affordable to the full range of Vermonters: from retail workers and early childhood educators to teachers and nurses to doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and others with higher incomes.
Let’s create inclusive, welcoming communities throughout Vermont. Be a YIMBY.
Vermont Legal Aid seeks an Executive Director to lead a nationally recognized, statewide civil legal aid organization.
FEBRUARY 17, 2022
Relief should be coming soon for Vermonters experiencing emotional and financial stress caused by significant delays in first level appeal hearings at the Department of Labor. Vermont Legal Aid (VLA) and the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL) have entered into an interim settlement agreement in the class action lawsuit filed in December 2021. The settlement agreement provides for a process to clear the backlog in unemployment appeals by May 1, 2022. The agreement also establishes benchmarks for progress and regularly reporting of VDOL data to VLA. A link to the settlement agreement is here.
Vermont law requires VDOL to hold unemployment hearings within thirty days after someone files an appeal. However, nearly two years after the coronavirus pandemic hit the state, Vermonters were still waiting up to six months for their hearing. People don’t get unemployment benefits while their appeal is pending, so these continued delays were devastating for out-of-work Vermonters. For folks appealing wrongful overpayment notices, the stress of having thousands of dollars owed to VDOL, while waiting up to six months to have an appeal heard, was also overwhelming, sometimes seriously impacting mental health.
After months of trying to resolve these issues, VLA filed a class action lawsuit on December 1, 2021, on behalf of Vermonters who were still waiting as long as six months to have appeal hearings held. At a status conference held just after the case was filed, the parties were ordered to discuss a possible settlement as the appeal delay issues which were the subject of the lawsuit were of grave concern for the court and the people of Vermont. In those discussions, it was quickly apparent that the Department was genuinely interested in resolving the appeal delay issue and understood the urgency of the issue for Vermonters suffering from ongoing delays.
The Department’s efforts to remedy the appeal delays, including making internal procedural changes and hiring more administrative law judges to hear appeals, have already made a difference. Recent data shows significant improvement in average wait times for claimants waiting to have appeal hearings. The Department anticipates continued improvement in the next few months with the changes it has already made. “We appreciate the hard work the Department has put into responding to the dire needs of unemployed Vermonters to have appeal hearings held quickly. Those hearings are often the key to unlocking critical benefits a household needs when someone has suddenly lost their income through no fault of their own,” explained Kelli Kazmarski, one of the attorneys from Vermont Legal Aid representing the Plaintiffs.
While the interim agreement is in effect, the litigation is on hold to allow the Department to continue to implement its plans to eliminate appeal delays. During that time, the Department will report its progress on a weekly basis to VLA and must use best efforts to attain certain benchmarks over the next few months. Either party may ask the court to intervene after good faith effort to resolve any problems or failures to comply with the agreement. Barring unforeseen events, the parties hope to reach final settlement in the lawsuit by this summer.
DECEMBER 1, 2021Kelly Murphy et al v. Michael Harrington, Commissioner, and VT Dept. of Labor
On December 1, 2021, Vermont Legal Aid Inc. (VLA) filed a class action lawsuit in Washington Superior Court against the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL) based on extensive delays in scheduling unemployment benefit appeals in violation of the law. The lawsuit requests an order from the Court to compel VDOL to come into compliance with the law.
Vermont law requires VDOL to hold unemployment hearings within thirty days after someone files an appeal. However, nearly two years after the coronavirus pandemic hit the state, VDOL is still failing to comply with this mandate. Instead, Vermonters must wait almost six months for their hearing. People don’t get unemployment benefits while their appeal is pending, so these continued delays are devastating for out-of-work Vermonters. There is no question that VDOL is completely out of compliance with the law.
“Many of our clients were wrongfully denied unemployment compensation, wrongfully terminated from their unemployment compensation, or wrongfully issued huge overpayment notices,” says Kelli Kazmarski, VLA attorney in the Poverty Law Project. “These delays are violating not only state law, but also Vermonters’ due process rights. People are waiting months and months without benefits just to be heard before these errors can be corrected. That’s simply unacceptable.”
VLA has been pushing the DOL to resolve this issue since at least January 2021. Over the summer of 2021, VDOL made assurances to advocates that it had a plan, and that it expected to make substantial progress in resolving the unlawful delay in appeal hearings by the end of September 2021. Yet, that still has not happened. In fact, the data shows that these delays in holding appeal hearings have continued. Over 600 unemployed Vermonters are waiting five or six months for their appeal hearing.
As plaintiff Joshua Webb explains, these delays have a considerable impact: “What the Department of Labor doesn’t seem to understand is that some promise of receiving any benefits I am due in the future does not pay my rent or other bills right now. Getting a lump sum of benefits I was owed six months after I appeal is not that helpful if I am already homeless by the time I receive the benefits!”
Years ago, when my 3-year-old son first saw someone sleeping in the doorway of a building in the cold, he asked: Why is he sleeping there? Won’t he be too cold? Why doesn’t he have a home? Why doesn’t someone help him? Why are we not helping him?
I always tried to answer my children’s questions honestly. So I said: He does not have a home. Yes, it is too cold. There is no good reason for him not to have a home; it is wrong. Someone should help him. We should help him.
My son would not stop asking questions. He was crying. He could not keep walking down the street as if nothing happened. How could I?
What are the stories that we learn to tell ourselves to keep walking? We do not say them out loud, but maybe they are something like, “This is someone who wasn’t able to follow the rules, someone who did not manage their money well, or maybe they committed a crime that led them to this place.”
Of course, when we say these things out loud, we often know those stories are incomplete and our reasons inadequate. The stories we tell ourselves shouldn’t allow us to ignore people’s humanity.
I work at Vermont Legal Aid, where we represent people experiencing homelessness or at imminent risk of homelessness. I sometimes find myself advising people who, like me, are working hard to care for their children, pay their bills, and do all the normal things I do every day. But unlike me, they may not have a home to return to at night.
There is no way to justify this reality. It is what keeps those of us who work with housing-insecure people awake at night. Once you know the real story behind a person who is homeless, you cannot tell yourself the false and simplified narratives that allow you to just keep walking.
According to a January 2019 Vermont Legal Aid report, about 70 percent of evictions happen because tenants simply cannot afford to pay their rent. Vermont ranks fifth in the nation for having the largest housing affordability gap, and that problem is getting worse in the current housing market.
No one deserves to be homeless — regardless of how they got there. We all know what any 3-year-old would tell you: It is just horrifically wrong that a human being is sleeping on the street, and no one is helping them.
In ”A Dry White Season,” Marlon Brando said the law and justice can be described as distant cousins. Sometimes, when I see that the law regularly allows people to be evicted into homelessness, often for no reason, that statement rings true. But I think it is more accurate to say that the law reflects our culture, and sometimes it takes time and political courage for our culture to evolve.
In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court held that the prohibition on same-sex marriage violated the Vermont Constitution. The Legislature’s efforts to fix it culminated in emotionally charged debates that finally resulted in the civil union statute in 2000.
Nine years later, when the Legislature took up same-sex marriage, there were enough votes to override the governor’s veto and to make the right to same-sex marriage into law. With advocacy and commitment from our political leaders, our culture had evolved to the understanding that recognizing same-sex marriage was simply the right thing to do.
Similarly, our cultural understanding of homelessness is evolving. For many years, those who witnessed people becoming homeless have argued that housing is a basic human right; that to build healthy, thriving communities, housing for all must be our top priority.
But historically, many who did not live or work in proximity to people experiencing homelessness did not share that view. The pandemic has begun to change that. Just recently, President Biden declared that housing should be a right, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge has urged that “housing is infrastructure.” Gov. Scott has characterized his housing budget as “the greatest investment in housing in the history of Vermont.”
Vermont’s efforts to house all who were homeless during the pandemic allowed us to have one of the lowest infection rates before vaccines became available. Numerous studies show that housing is essential to health, and that homelessness causes and exacerbates trauma, mental illness, chronic health conditions and substance use disorders.
We have the tools to address these problems. It is time for the law to reflect what we now know to be true — that housing for all must be recognized as a basic human right.
September 24, 2021
On behalf of our clients at Vermont Legal Aid, we are relieved to hear that Governor Scott has authorized extending General Assistance (GA) emergency housing for an additional 30 days.
Vermont is still suffering the effects of COVID-19, and people experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to becoming severely ill, even if they are vaccinated. Depriving them of this critical benefit would have been arbitrary and irrational in light of current conditions, and contrary to the intent of the Legislature.
Housing is health. And although Vermont is making historic investment in affordable housing development, that housing is not available yet, so shelter in motels is all that our vulnerable neighbors experiencing homelessness have for now. We look forward to working with the Administration and other service providers to effectively address the housing and homelessness crisis we face in Vermont.
We thank the advocates, including youth advocates, legislators, and people with lived experience who joined our call for this extension, and in so doing sent a powerful message to Governor Scott about who we are as a statewide community.
Shelter is a basic necessity that no one should go without. And this pandemic continues to teach us that when we avoid evictions and homelessness, our communities are stronger, healthier, safer and more prosperous.
Vermont Legal Aid and our community partners, along with the tireless staff at the Economic Services Department offices, are immediately getting to work to help ensure Vermonters living in the motels access the 30-day extension. Anyone who has trouble extending their stay should call Vermont Legal Aid at 1-800-889-2047.
August 20, 2021
SETTLEMENT REACHED IN GENERAL ASSISTANCE EMERGENCY HOUSING CASE
The Agency of Human Services and Vermont Legal Aid are pleased to announce that they have reached a settlement in the General Assistance (GA) emergency housing program lawsuit, Gray-Rand v. Vermont Agency of Human Services, No. 2:21-cv-178 (D. Vt.). As a result of the settlement, the parties stipulated to dismiss the case, which was granted by the Honorable J. Christina Reiss of the U.S. District Court for Vermont.
Last year, in response to the pandemic, the State significantly expanded eligibility, including the definition of what qualifies as a disability, making more Vermonters eligible to stay temporarily in hotels and motels.Today’s agreement represents mutually agreed upon changes to emergency housing and reinforces the State’s previous commitment to an expanded definition of who is eligible for assistance.
Per the settlement, eligibility for the GA program for persons with disabilities will be expanded, and a variance process will be formalized for cases where an applicant’s health or welfare would be at risk due to their disability if they were unsheltered. An easy-to-use form has been designed for people with disabilities to document eligibility. Notices of decision will inform applicants of the new variance process.
Department for Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner Sean Brown said: “We are happy to have reached this agreement and believe that it will serve Vermonters well. Today’s agreement will now allow us to continue the critical work of restructuring the way we provide emergency housing to those Vermonters experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. This means we can move forward with development of a plan—in collaboration with communities and stakeholders across the state—to transition to a system that provides more stable shelter and support services like food assistance, rental assistance, and mental health care.”
Vermont Legal Aid staff attorney Jessica Radbord describes the impact of this agreement: “People with disabilities who are experiencing homelessness will now be able to access GA benefits even if they are able to work. We believe this will protect some truly vulnerable members of our community from suffering negative health consequences as a result of being unsheltered. We’re also hopeful that the new form and procedures we’ve negotiated will ease access to this critical program. Vermont Legal Aid will continue to advocate for broad access to shelter and due process protections for Vermonters experiencing homelessness.”
Thomas, a participant in the General Assistance program, says: “During the six months that I was homeless before I came into the GA program, I was in and out of the hospital five times due to my disability. Since I came into the GA program, I haven’t been in the hospital once. It is saving my life. I’m glad the rules are changing. I have a serious disability, but I want to try to get a job, even if it’s just part-time. The new rules will let me do that and keep a roof over my head. I’m also hoping that the new form will make it easier for health care providers to help people like me demonstrate our eligibility.”
“Persons experiencing homelessness can call our Department for assistance at 800-479-6151,” said Commissioner Brown. Attorney Radbord encourages anyone experiencing or at risk of homelessness to request legal assistance from Vermont Legal Aid by calling 800-889-2047.
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Burlington, Vt., June 30, 2021 — Vermonters with disabilities living in motels who have been told they must leave by July 1 may have an additional 14 days if they call or go to the district office to request more time and declare that they have a disability. Today, the Vermont Superior Court granted a Temporary Order that gives Vermonters with disabilities living in the motels an additional 14 days of continued housing to verify their disability. This order has also been approved by Judge Reiss in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont. Vermont Legal Aid and the Agency of Human Services (AHS) filed a stipulated Temporary Order with the Vermont Superior Court, Washington Unit this morning. This temporary order is in effect for the next 15 days, and the case would resume after that time, unless a further agreement is reached.
The Order will provide Vermonters with disabilities, who are otherwise eligible for General Assistance but do not receive SSI, SSDI, VA benefits for Medicaid for the Aged Blind and Disabled, the opportunity to “self-attest” that they have a disability and an additional 14 days to obtain verification from a health care provider, including a therapist, counselor, clinician, nurse or PCP. If participants are unable to get verification within 14 days or are ultimately denied GA assistance by AHS for other reasons, they are still eligible to collect a $2,500 essential payment.
Yesterday, AHS, filed a notice with the Vermont Superior Court, Washington Unit that they intended to remove the case to U.S. District Court in Burlington, Vermont. That notice for removal was filed by the State today with the Federal District Court, depriving the Vermont Superior Court of jurisdiction over this case.
This 15-day interim agreement will protect hundreds of Vermonters with disabilities from losing shelter on July 1. “We are pleased that the State agreed to this order” says Jessica Radbord, lead attorney for the Plaintiff class. “This will provide vulnerable Vermonters an additional two weeks to verify disability status while remaining sheltered.”
Anyone receiving GA emergency housing who believes they have a disability should contact the Department at 1-800-497-6151 or go to their local district office to self-attest their disability and request ongoing assistance. If the Department later denies assistance, you are eligible to collect the $2,500 essential payment. Anyone who has problems with that process or has questions about their rights, should contact Vermont Legal Aid, Inc. at 1-800-889-2047.
# # #FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Jessica Radbord, (802) 383-2208, email@example.com Mairead O’Reilly, (802) 383-2225, firstname.lastname@example.org Vermont Legal Aid Files Class Action Lawsuit to Stop Changes to GA Emergency Housing Program Burlington, Vt.— On June 28, 2021, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc. filed a class action lawsuit in the Vermont Superior Court, Washington Unit, Civil Division, to stop the Agency of Human Services from terminating General Assistance Emergency Housing Program benefits for hundreds of Vermonters with disabilities. General Assistance (GA) has provided shelter in motels and hotels across Vermont for low-income residents experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. AHS implemented changes to the GA program in violation of Vermont law and without sufficient regard for the core principles of due process. The lawsuit seeks an immediate injunction from the Court to prevent the changes to program rules from taking effect and to bar the Department from terminating benefits for residents of the motels on July 1. The lawsuit has been filed as a class action on behalf of those eligible for the program or who would be eligible for the program but for the changes to the eligibility criteria. The lawsuit targets the restrictive definition of what qualifies as a “disability” under the new eligibility criteria. “Vermonters with disabilities who are homeless deserve to be treated fairly, subject to rules that are legally valid, and accorded appropriate procedural protections” explains Vermont Legal Aid staff attorney Jessica Radbord.” Even in an emergency, administrative rules must be promulgated according to proper procedure to be given the force and effect of law. The state’s definition of disability is overly restrictive, especially given the Governor’s continued recognition of our need for non-congregate shelter, and that Vermont will likely continue to be reimbursed for the cost of the GA program at a 100% cost-share by the Federal Government. GA motel residents told VLA that the Department told them they were ineligible for the program before they had even had a chance to reapply. Those individuals never received notice of the basis for the denial, or how to appeal. “These are fundamental violations of due process,” says Attorney Radbord. Staff Attorney Mairead O’Reilly said the impact the challenged rules will have on Vermonters will be serious: “On July 1, hundreds of Vermonters with disabilities will be ousted from their motel shelter to live in vans, barns, campsites, and our city streets. Our clients are anxious and fearful about what comes next, and our local communities are scrambling to develop the infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of this population. There is a more responsible, and lawful, way for the state to transition from the COVID-era GA emergency housing program. We hope this lawsuit will force compliance with the law and provide our most vulnerable neighbors with fairer GA emergency housing rules.”
Do you think you may have an arrest warrant for a Chittenden County court case?
The Chittenden County Public Defender’s Office will partner with the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office and Vermont Legal Aid to host a warrant clinic from now until June 25, 2021, to help Vermonters clear up arrest warrants and re-connect them with criminal court dates.
During the pandemic, court closures, sickness, changes in court dates and other hardships related to COVID-19 created confusion over court dates. As a result, arrest warrants have been issued. When defendants have an outstanding arrest warrant, interactions with law enforcement, an arrest, and a night in jail could be the end result. Walking into the courthouse to check on an arrest warrant and clear it up has been more complicated during pandemic-related court closures.
The free clinic will focus on helping people clear up outstanding warrants and get a new court date. It will be open to the public by telephone appointment through June 25. If you have questions about your arrest warrant status or you want to sign up for the clinic, contact Grace at Vermont Legal Aid at 802-503-0005 ext. 255.