Latino Families Fight For Fair Housing & Civil Rights in Richmond, VA

Phil Storey, Attorney, Legal Aid Justice Center.

Phil Storey, Attorney, Legal Aid Justice Center.

Residents & HUD challenge aggressive code enforcement in mobile home park.

The final question we had for Ms. Molina was the kicker, as we prepared her to testify in an upcoming summary judgment hearing in federal court. We were asking about the effects of the city of Richmond’s aggressive maintenance code enforcement campaign against the residents of the mobile home park where she lives. City inspectors had threatened her, like most of her neighbors, with imminent displacement and the condemnation of her home (a later review of the inspectors’ notes showed that there was nothing to justify condemning the home, despite the city’s threats).  “How often do you think about it,” we asked the retiree from El Salvador. Ms. Molina’s eyes welled up with tears and, after a pause, her voice cracked, “All the time.” She paused as she wept. “All the time.”

Richmond said it had targeted Ms. Molina’s community of nearly one hundred families, known as Rudd’s Trailer Park, and the other mobile home parks in the city for aggressive enforcement because of health and safety concerns. Coincidentally, these parks were occupied overwhelmingly by Latino families who owned their mobile homes but rented the lots. Richmond’s own fair-housing analysis had recently concluded that the mobile home parks were a critical source of affordable housing for the city’s Latino immigrants. Not only did the inspection campaign target these vulnerable Latino communities, it also imposed prohibitively expensive remedial standards in excess of maintenance code requirements.

Latino homes at Rudd's Trailer Park were targeted for aggressive enforcement

Latino homes at Rudd's Trailer Park were targeted for aggressive enforcement

The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) began advocating for the targeted residents shortly after the inspections began, when the Sacred Heart Center, a local non-profit focused on serving poor Latino immigrant families, referred many of the families for legal advice. Discussions with Richmond code enforcement to identify less draconian ways to address the city’s valid health and safety concerns succeeded in delaying most of the threatened condemnations. However, despite the formation and advocacy of a coalition of more than a dozen local non-profits and churches supporting mobile home park residents, Richmond still dangled the threat of imminent condemnation and displacement over the heads of the residents while offering little to no support for affected families.

It having become clear that non-legal advocacy wouldn’t adequately protect the vulnerable residents, we filed administrative complaints with HUD against the city of Richmond, alleging violations of the fair housing act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for discrimination based on national origin. We hoped a HUD investigation would convince the city to back off its aggressive campaign, but the city showed no interest in compromise. So in August, with pro bono assistance from the Washington DC office of Crowell & Moring LLP, LAJC filed suit in federal court against Richmond on behalf of thirty-three residents of two mobile home parks for violations of the federal and state fair housing acts and Title VI. 

The HUD administrative investigation moved forward in parallel as HUD could pursue enforcement of certain claims that private plaintiffs could not.  

While discovery didn’t produce a smoking gun, and the lawsuit settled in exchange for a commitment to significant reforms to protect mobile home park residents, the results of discovery proved critically important to the HUD investigation and conciliation process. Supported by documents and admissions obtained in discovery from the lawsuit, HUD and the complainants negotiated strong protections from the city in a voluntary conciliation agreement that will provide ongoing accountability for four years.

Some of Richmond’s obligations under the agreement include: performing a new analysis of impediments to fair-housing choice and ensuring that its use of funding from HUD addresses those impediments, including in mobile home parks; regularly training the staff of key departments to protect fair-housing rights and to provide interpretation and translation services to city residents free of charge; posting notices in city offices informing people of the availability of free interpretation upon request; ensuring that city websites and telephone voice response systems are available in Spanish as well as English; and appointing a Fair Housing Compliance Officer and a Language Access Coordinator, who will oversee and report regularly to HUD on the city’s compliance with the terms of the agreement.

Without the important evidence produced in litigation, supported by the Impact Fund, we likely would not have gained the important concessions and accountability that came out of the HUD investigation and conciliation. In this case, the parallel judicial and administrative enforcement actions produced benefits to the community beyond what either strategy would have produced on its own.