Understanding Tenant Rights and Working for Safe and Stable Homes with Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Fund

Kaitlin Banfill, October 2020.

For most of my adult life I have lived in rental housing. During my time in graduate school, almost everyone I know is also a renter, living in rental, often shared, housing around the Emory University Area. Unfortunately, many people I know, myself included, are not fully aware of their rights as tenants. Over the past month, while working with Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), I have started to understand more about tenants rights, housing inequality, and the complex legal process surrounding evictions.

AVLF stands with low-income tenants and provides legal assistance for those facing housing evictions and domestic violence. This semester, I will be designing client-facing content to better explain legal processes for both survivors and tenants. This month, while researching the eviction process, I began to understand the complexity of these issues and the importance of combating issues like landlord harassment, mass evictions, and displacement.

As a graduate student in anthropology, I have read ethnographic literature and theory, but seldom have I taken the time to read legal documents. Most of the time, when I receive a new housing contract, I only glance over it momentarily before signing. For instance, I did not know that in leases in Georgia, the renter consents to the fact that mold (including toxic mold) may grow anywhere on the premise. I only became aware of this after mold appeared in my bathroom and my landlord informed me that this was my own issue to deal with. While there is a disclosure for lead paint included in leases, mold falls under the category of tenant responsibilities to report to the landlord. Nonetheless, tenants still have the right to take the landlord to court if a mold issue persists and causes harm.

In situations like this, it is easy for the landlord to intimidate the tenant if they are unaware of their rights. When a problem between landlord and tenant or an eviction occurs, there may be more emphasis on the legal process—the so-called “rules”— rather than the experience of the people actually being displaced and the series of events, injustices, and broader socioeconomic factors that can lead to displacement. For this reason, it is important to develop a counter narrative by and for tenants. As an anthropologist, I believe that one way to do this is to highlight the lived experience of those dealing with displacement and eviction. One interesting example of this is the Tenants in Common project in Los Angeles, which documents oral histories of displacement and resistance.

Presently, during the COVID-19 epidemic, more people than ever face housing insecurity and the looming threat of eviction. Even before COVID-19, Atlanta has a long history of housing inequality and injustice, with higher-than-average eviction rates in metro Atlanta and surrounding counties, where some eviction rates are as high as forty percent.  Furthermore, evictions disproportionately impact black communities and other communities of color, dislocating many people from important community networks and resources that they rely on. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution’s “Mapping Evictions in Atlanta” reveals how race and income level coincide with eviction rates. This is not unique to Atlanta and cities nationwide reflect similar patterns of housing inequality (https://evictionlab.org/).

In early September, the CDC issued a nationwide moratorium to temporarily halt residential evictions through December 31, 2020 to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. While this is a positive development, the housing situations of millions are tenuous during these uncertain times and it is possible that moratoriums only delay an inevitable housing crisis. It can be difficult to keep up with major developments such as the issuing of moratoriums by government agencies. For this reason, tenants need to know their rights and how to engage with the legal system more than ever, especially at a time when visiting a law office or the courthouse can pose a risk to one’s health.

AVLF provides a variety of services to help people navigate the complicated system. The Housing Court Assistance Center is a Walk-In center at the Fulton County Courthouse that provides advice for people whose landlord is taking them to court.  The clinic is open currently and follows health protocol. AVLF also organizes the Saturday Lawyers Program, which provides low-income tenants with legal assistance.  The program is now virtual and pairs clients with attorneys over video conferencing.

In the next few months, I will work with AVLF to design an info-graphic/comic that will explain to tenants how to navigate the eviction process. Unfortunately, I will not be able to conduct in person participant observation at AVLF, because of COVID-19. I will instead research the subject, attend webinars, and talk with AVLF team members over Zoom. While reading about the eviction process, I have learned that the complex language and information in legal documents is often difficult to decipher. For this reason, making this information more legible and accessible to the public is important. I am a visual anthropologist and have previously created graphic ethnographies and photo essays in order to discuss social phenomena. I hope to do similar work at AVLF and that this resource will help inform tenants and the broader public, including graduate students, about what they can do to promote housing security in the community.