A New Way to Open Doors to Opportunity

The neighborhood you live in and the school you attend have repercussions into every area of your life. We call neighborhoods with access to amenities such as jobs, transportation, good schools, grocery stores and retail shops “Neighborhoods of Opportunity.” These neighborhoods tend to be more ethnically and economically diverse and have lower rates of poverty and crime. We believe everyone has a right to live in Neighborhoods of Opportunity, because where you live makes such a huge difference in your life. Studies show that children who live in high-poverty neighborhoods and attend school with predominantly low-income classmates make less money over their lifetime and suffer an increase risk of health problems such as diabetes or heart disease.[i]

For very low income families, a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) is a means of moving out of their current low-opportunity neighborhood into a neighborhood of opportunity. Qualified families must make 50% or less of the area median income. In Richmond this means that a family of four must make $26,450 or less annually.[ii] An HCV ensures that a family doesn’t have to spend more than 30% of their income on housing. This enables them to spend money on other needs, such as food and health care. Without the HCV, they might not have enough money to eat or go to the doctor when they are sick. They might even end up homeless if their living costs become unmanageable.

A Housing Choice Voucher does not solve all of a family’s problems, though. It is not a magic wand or a cure-all pill. There are still many hurdles to cross on the path to an opportunity neighborhood. First, these families are often denied housing by landlords who can legally choose not to rent to HCV holders. An ad like the one below is all too common on sites like Craigslist where thousands of housing transactions begin every day.

no section 8 craigslist

Even when families with an HCV are not flatly denied housing, moving to a new neighborhood is a difficult and stressful process. This is true even for families with lots of resources at their disposal. For all families there are many factors to consider when moving, affordability is just one. Other factors we all consider are: how close you’ll be to your job; will you need to get a new job; which school will your children attend; what sort of transportation is available to you; will you get along with your neighbors and your landlord? For families with an HCV, the answers to these common questions might be very complicated and require more time, energy and resources to solve than they have available. So many families remain in their current neighborhoods where they continue to be in danger due to high crime rates, increased exposure to environmental toxins, lack of access to fresh and healthy food, a dearth of good jobs and sound educational opportunities.

The Move To Opportunity program is administered by Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) with funds from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. This program is designed to connect qualified HCV holders with the resources they need to make the move to an opportunity neighborhood. HOME staff will work closely with the families to identify the unique barriers they might face when deciding to move and then will connect them with the tools they need to make the move. A landlord liaison will work with landlords and property managers who are interested in partnering with HOME and the local housing authority to provide housing for HCV holders in opportunity neighborhoods. Each unit will go through a quality inspection to ensure that families are moving into housing that will keep them safe as well as give them access to opportunities. A landlord liaison will also ensure that the relationship between the landlord, HOME, the local housing authority, and the tenant goes smoothly.

Our hope is that this program will enable families to make a move that will forever change their lives and the lives of the next generation. Children who attend schools in opportunity neighborhoods have a higher earning potential over their lifetime.[iii] Girls whose families have participated in similar programs across the country experience improvements in mental and physical health.[iv] Additionally, this program is a step towards ensuring equal access to housing for a group that is at risk for housing discrimination but as yet receives little protection.


[i] http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html

[ii] For more information on area median income and HCV eligibility visit http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/hcv/about/fact_sheet

[iii] http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/spencer.pdf

[iv] http://www.nber.org/mtopublic/MTO%20Overview%20Summary.pdf


Morgan Barker is serving with AmeriCorps VISTA at HOME. She is a Richmond native with a passion for social justice.


The Monster in the Closet

Recently, the news has been consumed by coverage of Donald Sterling’s racist comments caught on tape and the NBA’s swift and decisive condemnation. This seems to denote a turning point in race relations in the United States. We’re tempted to declare that the Civil Rights Movement has been a success, open racism is no longer acceptable, we’ve won! And it’s true, overt racism is frowned upon today and few proudly proclaim their racist ideals anymore. Even the Ku Klux Klan no longer claims to be an “enemy” to minorities (but they aren’t particularly friendly, either).[i] Yet, in 2003 when Donald Sterling was accused of housing discrimination against current and prospective tenants in his apartment complexes, nobody batted an eye. This accusation has only resurfaced to be used as one more piece of evidence to prove that his recorded remarks were made with racist intent. To me, this proves that open expressions of racism and being perceived by the public as a racist are undesirable in America, but policies and practices with racist effects, as long as they are hard to see, are somehow acceptable. America is not post-racial, our country continues to rest upon invisible and systemic racism, but we make ourselves feel better about it by condemning those who make their racism known.

Possibly the best thing to come out of this Sterling controversy is a great article at CNN from Rinku Sen, the publisher at Colorlines.com and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. In the article, Sen identifies three things that need to be done in order to achieve racial equity: “talk explicitly about race; focus on the impact of policies and practices and the intention behind them; and support power-building in marginalized communities.”[ii] So far, none of these things are happening on a regular or highly effective basis at the national level. They are, however, happening at the local and regional level, and with much success. Sen goes on to detail a few instances in which groups have explicitly looked at the racial impact of policies and practices, which might on the surface seem benign, and made changes which had positive impacts for racial equality.

I’d like to continue what Sen started with a discussion of HOME and the ways we try to combat racism using Sen’s framework. HOME has been engaged in ensuring equal access to housing for all people since 1971. We’ve always had a focus on combating racism, as this is one of the biggest barriers to fair housing. We work both at the individual and the systemic level and the examples I’m about to give have to do with both internal efforts amongst staff as well as our external programs.

  1. Talk explicitly about race: In February of this year, HOME had an intentional staff-wide discussion of racism and white privilege. We spoke about the ways we as individuals and as an organization experience and confront racism in our daily lives and work. We challenged each other to use white privilege, if we have it, to confront and disrupt racism when we see it. Additionally, we decided that as an organization we need to do a better job of not only confronting racism but being real about the ways it influences us as an organization both internally and externally. As a result of this discussion, we’ve begun to set aside intentional times to engage openly and honestly with one another about racism and inequality once a week during what we call “Brown Bag Lunches.” Racism informs our work, in fact, it drives much of it. We have committed to the ongoing process of talking intentionally and explicitly about racism and inequality so that we can clearly name it and interrupt it when we see it.
  1. Focus on the impact of policies and practices and the intention behind them: As an organization with a specific emphasis on research and advocacy, HOME regularly engages in identifying and investigating the racial impact of state and local policies as well as policies of private companies. Our interest is in the ways these policies and practices impact access to housing and the credit to obtain housing. We regularly investigate the policies and practices of private and public entities within the housing industry and conduct independent research such as our recent project, “Mapping RVA: Where You Live Makes All the Difference.” These research endeavors are then used to change the practices and policies of the participants and serve as valuable educational tools for others who are interested in making better policies for the future.
  1. Support power-building in marginalized communities: Finally, we empower low-to-moderate income families in the Richmond Metro Region to take advantage of the opportunity to build wealth by purchasing their first home. 84% of these families are minorities. None of them could have purchased a home when they did without the support of HOME’s program for first-time homebuyers. Owning a home is one of the best ways to provide not only economic but social stability for a family and the larger community. A low rate of homeownership among minority groups in the U.S. is one of the biggest contributing factors to the wealth gap between whites and minorities. By providing low-to-moderate income families with the opportunity to become homeowners, HOME strengthens minority communities and enables these families to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible.

America is not post racial. Racism permeates every facet of society because our society has not learned to confront or even effectively talk about racism and the ways it works in our world. This stops us from reaching our highest potential as a nation.

Yes, it is something to be excited about that someone with as much power as Donald Sterling can lose it all with an ill-timed racist remark, but invisible, systemic racism abounds in our society and we are letting it happen. Rinku Sen and I have given you a few examples of ways people are working to eliminate this proverbial monster in the closet, but it can’t be completed without a visible and systemic effort at the individual, local, regional, state and national levels. We have to condemn the covert as well as the overt acts of racism. All the anger and indignation over Donald Sterling will mean nothing if people are still denied full membership in society simply because of who they are.




[i] http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/local/chesterfield/chesterfield-residents-receive-kkk-fliers/article_ed60e60e-78ec-55f4-a6ef-0d579292069f.html

[ii] http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/07/living/race-sterling-identity/


Morgan Barker is serving with AmeriCorps VISTA at HOME. She is a Richmond native with a passion for social justice.

Happy Fair Housing Month!

April has been designated Fair Housing Month as a way of honoring and celebrating the Fair Housing Act and the many people who dedicated their passion to bringing it into law. Most notably, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a champion of Fair Housing. At the urging of President Lyndon Johnson, the Act was passed in MLK’s honor days after his assassination in 1968. The Fair Housing Act is no less significant today than it was when it was passed in ’68.

This is a law that required not only high level paradigm shifts but also rests heavily on individuals to not only make choices to comply with the law, but to make strong choices when confronted with injustice. Fair Housing claims cannot be brought without the participation of wronged individuals but most importantly without volunteers who assist in collecting evidence. Fair Housing has always relied on grassroots initiatives holding institutions accountable.

The Chicago Freedom Movement was an alliance of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations led by Martin Luther King, Jr. to protest the segregation of the city as enforced by Chicago realtors who were steering African American clients into certain parts of the city. In Richmond, too, grassroots organizations of community activists were what really started the ball rolling towards neighborhood integration. One such organization was the Carillon Civic Association which formed to protest and counter discriminatory practices by real estate agents in their neighborhood. By 1971, they were successful in ending discriminatory advertising for houses in their neighborhood. Members of the Carillon Civic Association were also influential in HOME’s early years.

Their legacy continues today as HOME relies heavily on the support of individuals in the community who bring our attention to instances of discrimination or volunteer their time to help us uncover and document discrimination. Now that the Fair Housing Act exists, it is up to all of us to ensure that its promise holds true for all of us. This requires us to be diligent in our observations of housing transactions, advertisements, and market trends. We cannot do this work without grassroots support and energy to be our “eyes and ears.”

The Fair Housing Act has an intimate affect on our lives. It has a direct effect on where we are able to live and who is able to live near us. Not only is each one of us protected but each one of us has the responsibility to ensure that our neighborhoods are open and welcoming to all.

We can all be fair housing heroes.


Morgan Barker is serving with AmeriCorps VISTA at HOME. She is a Richmond native with a passion for social justice.

Housing Choice Vouchers- Protecting a Path out of Poverty

Nationwide, 2.2 million households use Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV). (These are formally referred to as “Section 8 Vouchers” since it is provided for under Section 8 of the Federal Housing Act.)[i]  These vouchers allow very low income households to choose their housing while their rent is paid in full or in part by grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The problem is that housing providers can choose not to rent to families using the vouchers simply because they do not want to be paid with them. This is called discrimination based on source of income.

Twelve states have passed legislation that protects against discrimination based on source of income. Virginia is not one of these states.

According to a 2011 HUD-funded evaluation, the implementation of laws that protect source of income improved voucher utilization rates and supported families’ ability to move to better neighborhoods. In 2010 the utilization rate for HCV’s was 89% and most families using the vouchers lived in areas where 10-50 percent of residents live below the poverty line. If lawful source of income was protected, we expect that the utilization rates of the vouchers would increase and that more families would move to low-poverty neighborhoods. Families that move to low-poverty neighborhoods using the HCV program experience significant benefits. Adults who move to areas with less than 10 percent poverty rates have lower incidences of obesity and diabetes and improved mental health. Female adolescents in families that move to low-poverty neighborhoods using the vouchers also experience significant improvements in mental health and educational outcomes. [ii]

Adding this protection to the Virginia Fair Housing Act would be a boon for HCV holders and could greatly improve the lives of many adults and children. Families with lawful sources of income are vulnerable and need as much support and protection as possible. Protecting a lawful source of income is a simple way to clear the path out of poverty for many families.

[i] United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Housing Choice Vouchers: Options Exist to Increase Program Efficiencies,” (Washington: U.S. GAO, March 2012).

[ii] Sanbonmatsu, L., et. al., “Moving to Opportunity Final Evaluation- Executive Summary” (October 2011).


Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME) has filed a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against The Towers Retirement Community in Richmond, Va. and its Roanoke-based parent company Retirement Unlimited, Inc. The Virginia nonprofit fair housing organization, represented by Washington D.C. law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC, claims The Towers’ policies on the use of motorized mobility devices constitute illegal housing discrimination against people with physical disabilities.

The Towers requires residents using motorized mobility devices to pay an additional $1,500 security deposit and obtain liability insurance. Another instance of illegal housing discrimination is the requirement that such residents obtain additional assessments of their disability from the complex’s staff. Finally, Towers residents who use motorized mobility devices are barred from using the property’s transportation services, despite the fact that a mandatory monthly transportation fee is factored into each resident’s total rent cost. Applicants and residents of The Towers who do not use powered mobility devices are not subject to these additional onerous requirements.

The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate based on a person’s disability, including creating barriers to access or applying different terms and conditions to persons with disabilities.

According to HUD, disability complaints constituted the highest percentage of all fair housing complaints from 2007 to 2012 (44 percent in 2012). The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) reports that 19 percent of the non-institutionalized U.S. population has a disability.  Creating equal access to housing without discrimination for persons with disabilities is an important part of preserving independence.

HOME’s complaint was filed together with the complaint of a 71-year-old woman who utilizes a motorized scooter for all aspects of her daily life after losing her ability to walk from a condition known as severe peripheral neuropathy. The complaint alleges that the complainant’s use of a power scooter is a necessary factor in her freedom and independence, and the fines and restrictions imposed on her as a result of her limited mobility are illegal.

HOME receives more fair housing complaints from people with disabilities than any other protected class,” HOME’s Director of Fair Housing, Helen Hardiman, said. “Our work in this case demonstrates HOME’s commitment  to educating housing providers and consumers on their rights and responsibilities under fair housing laws.”

Any persons who believe that they were treated differently because of their mobility devices or other disability-related needs at The Towers Retirement Community or any other Retirement Unlimited property, or any individuals who believe that they have been victims of housing discrimination anywhere in Virginia should contact HOME at 804-354-0641.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on seven “protected classes”: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status (families with children under age 18). Fair housing laws in Virginia offer an additional protection for individuals aged 55 years or older.

A dream for all of us

Martin Luther King Jr. was born this week in 1929. He shared with all of us a dream of a world in which the color of your skin did not bar you from any of life’s opportunities. HOME carries on his legacy by tirelessly enforcing the Fair Housing Act and remaining dedicated to ensuring that everyone, no matter who they are, has full access to the opportunity to live in safe, decent and affordable housing.

We know that discrimination is often based on more than just skin color. We file fair housing complaints based on skin color, race, religion, disability, age, sex, national origin, and familial status. This protects a lot of people, but there are still groups who are not protected. In Virginia, it is legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and source of income. Luckily, three bills filed in this session of the General Assembly propose adding sexual orientation as a protected class under the Virginia Fair Housing Act. Another bill seeks to protect families from discrimination based on their source of income. And finally, there is a bill which will enable all married couples- regardless of their gender or where they were married- to be legal joint property owners. Where you live makes all the difference, we want all Virginians to feel safe and secure in their housing choices.

If you agree with us, contact your legislator and tell them you support the rights of all Virginians to safe, affordable and decent housing. The protection of these rights should not be contingent upon sexual orientation, gender identity, or source of income.

Ready, Set, Advocate!

Today is Housing Advocacy Day. Supporters of HOME’s mission are talking to members of the General Assembly about the bills we support and the changes we hope to see in this session. There have been almost 2,000 bills filed this session between the House and the Senate; these are the ones HOME is keeping an eye on. Click the bill number for the full text of the proposed bill. The bills in bold are the ones we strongly support.

House Bills:

HB 208– Amends the existing vested rights statute by clarifying that structures that meet certain conditions shall be considered nonconforming. Additional changes make clear that a requirement under existing law to bring certain structures into compliance with the Uniform Statewide Building Code shall not affect the nonconforming status of those structures.

HB 222– Requires the Commissioner of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to notify the local governing body of a locality in which a provider has proposed or applied for an initial license or to modify a license of the proposal or application, and to receive and consider comments submitted by the local governing body when making decisions regarding issuance of a license or modification.

HB 224 Changes the criteria for transferring certain tax-delinquent real property to localities through a special commissioner in the Cities of Norfolk, Richmond, Hopewell, Newport News, Petersburg, and Hampton by reducing the percentage of taxes and liens from exceeding 35 percent to 20 percent and of taxes alone from 15 percent to 10 percent, respectively, and including parcels with an assessed value of $100,000 or less.

HB 259– Proscribes an individual from alleging a real estate licensee has engaged in untrue, deceptive, or misleading advertising unless such licensee has been convicted doing so.

HB 273 Changes the applicability of the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act from the ownership of no more than 10 single-family residences to ownership of no more than two single-family residences and makes the application uniform across the state. The bill also authorizes a landlord to expedite the disposition of security deposits under certain circumstances. The bill repeals the requirement for a landlord to accrue interest on security deposits, effective January 1, 2015.

HB 295 Increases the total amount of tax credits granted for the Livable Home Tax Credit program in any fiscal year from $1 million to $2 million and increases the total amount of tax credits made available through the program allocated for purchase or construction of new residences from $500,000 to $1 million and the total amount allocated for retrofitting or renovation of existing residences from $500,000 to $1 million. The bill is a recommendation of the Virginia Disability Commission.

HB 296– Requires localities to take steps to align transportation infrastructure and facilities with affordable, accessible housing and community services when developing the transportation component of the comprehensive plan for the physical development of the territory. The bill is a recommendation of the Virginia Disability Commission.

HB 331– Establishes first-time home buyer savings accounts that are to be used for saving funds for the purchase of homes by first-time home buyers. Moneys in the account are required to be used solely for the down payment and closing costs for the purchase of a home by a first-time home buyer. The bill establishes an individual income tax subtraction for income earned on contributions to the account. However, if moneys are withdrawn from the account for purposes other than to pay eligible costs, any income previously subtracted would be subject to recapture by the Commonwealth and a five percent penalty would be imposed. There would be no recapture and addition to taxable income if the amounts withdrawn were (i) withdrawn because of the death or disability of the account beneficiary, (ii) a disbursement of assets pursuant to a filing for protection under federal bankruptcy laws, or (iii) transferred to another first-time home buyer savings account
The bill limits the amount of principal that can be contributed to any account to $50,000 and limits the total amount that can be retained in an account at any time to $150,000. Persons would be allowed to contribute only cash or marketable securities to a first-time home buyer savings account.

HB 418Adds discrimination based on sexual orientation as an unlawful discriminatory housing practice. The bill defines “sexual orientation” as a person’s actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, or gender identity or expression. “Sexual orientation” does not include sexually deviant disorders (paraphilias) as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

HB 419– Broadens the class of individuals who may hold property as tenants by the entireties to include any married couple whose marriage is recognized under the laws of any state in the United States.

HB 524– Requires the Board of Housing and Community Development to revise the Uniform Statewide Building Code to require that at least 10 percent of all dwelling units, but in no case less than one dwelling unit, in any newly constructed multifamily residential building shall be affordable, accessible units designed and constructed in a manner that satisfies the criteria for Type A units, in accordance with ANSI A117.1. Currently, at least two percent of dwelling units, but in no case less than one dwelling unit, in any multifamily residential building must be Type A units. The bill is a recommendation of the Virginia Disability Commission.

HB 527– Provides that for purposes of zoning, a residential facility in which no more than eight individuals with mental illness, intellectual disability, or developmental disabilities reside, with one or more resident or nonresident staff persons, shall be considered residential occupancy by a single family. Currently, such facilities are required to have one or more resident counselors or other staff persons to qualify for this zoning designation.

HB 600– Extends to tenants with one or more minor children who live within 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines the right to continue to occupy their apartment or unit or at least one of equal size and overall quality under a lease agreement, even though their apartment or unit will be converted to a condominium. Under current law, the locality must enact an ordinance to afford these rights, and currently such rights are available to elderly or disabled tenants.

HB 792– Requires localities in Planning District 8 (Northern Virginia) to include provisions in their zoning ordinances that limit the number of residential units with 500 square feet or less of living space to no more than 100 residential units per 100,000 population in the locality. Zoning changes required to accommodate such units must be at a location in which the zoning prior to January 1, 2014, was at least 12 residential dwellings per acre.

HB 816– Adds lawful source of income to the list on the basis of which it is unlawful to discriminate in fair housing practices. The bill defines lawful source of income as any income used by a person to pay for the purchase or lease of a dwelling, including (i) public assistance, (ii) any manner of gross income, (iii) federal supplemental security income benefits, (iv) child support, and (v) any federal, state, or local housing assistance, regardless of whether the funds are paid directly to the person or to a landlord or other third party for the benefit of the person. The bill also authorizes the governing body of any county, city, or town to enact an ordinance in accordance with the provisions of the Virginia Fair Housing Law, provided such ordinance includes protections against discrimination that are at least as protective as those provided by the law.

Senate Bills

SB 58– Requires localities to take steps to align transportation infrastructure and facilities with affordable, accessible housing and community services when developing the transportation component of the comprehensive plan for the physical development of the territory. The bill is a recommendation of the Virginia Disability Commission.

SB 63– Requires the Board of Housing and Community Development to revise the Uniform Statewide Building Code to require that at least 10 percent of all dwelling units, but in no case less than one dwelling unit, in any newly constructed multifamily residential building shall be affordable, accessible units designed and constructed in a manner that satisfies the criteria for Type A units, in accordance with ANSI A117.1. Currently, at least two percent of dwelling units, but in no case less than one dwelling unit, in any multifamily residential building must be Type A units. The bill is a recommendation of the Virginia Disability Commission

SB 313– Provides that if any locality elects to enforce Part III of the Building Code, it shall also enforce the unsafe structures provisions for tenant complaints and enforce the elevator, escalator, or related conveyance inspections. The bill also provides that where a county provides enforcement of Parts I and II of the Building Code in a town, and elects to inspect and enforce Part III of the Building Code, the county is also required to inspect and enforce Part III of the Building Code in any such town situated in the county that has also adopted Part III, upon entering into a nonmonetary agreement with the town for such enforcement, unless the town elects to inspect and enforce Part III. The bill contains technical amendments.

SB 340– Allows a locality to require any party wishing to establish a certain type of residential facility for the aged, infirm, disabled, or those with mental illness to provide public notice and participate in a public hearing. The bill requires the operator of such a facility to install smoke detectors regardless of when the building was constructed and directs the Board of Housing and Community Development to adopt regulations establishing standards for requiring smoke detectors.

Keep checking in with us as we post updates on the progress of these bills. Remember, the decisions made in the General Assembly affect all of us as Virginians. Write your legislators and urge them to support the bills you care about.

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