AVLF receives grant to fight unhealthy housing

By Sonam Vashi

The Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation received a $400,000 grant to expand a program that helps fight evictions, displacement, and harmful living conditions.

The grant, awarded by the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation, will support AVLF’s Standing With Our Neighbors program, which places an attorney and advocates directly in schools and neighborhoods to address issues at the intersections of housing and education—like evictions that force families to change schools. With the grant, AVLF will expand its work in the health realm: curbing instances of asthma in children, which can be caused by substandard living conditions.

“Most kids with chronic asthma have multiple visits to the emergency room,” says Michael Lucas, AVLF’s deputy director. “We believe that, for a large number of these kids in these neighborhoods, it’s due to their living conditions. We see it every day: mold, roach infestations, moisture. If we can make the living environment better, they’ll have less hospital visits.”

Complexes that AVLF works in, like Forest Cove apartments in Thomasville Heights, have had longstanding issues with mold, and residents have complained of asthma and other respiratory problems. At Forest Cove, AVLF has helped expedite repairs, fight evictions, and improve school turnover rates.

Lateresa Chaney, at the front with a clipboard in July, reads a letter from residents to management at Forest Cove demanding renovations, security and better communications. Credit: Maggie Lee

Last fall, Forest Cove residents demanded renovations. Credit: Maggie Lee

AVLF has expanded Standing With Our Neighbors into eight schools, where it has assisted 450 families. Half of those families have had housing issues that caused asthma-related problems, according to AVLF.

With the grant, Lucas says that AVLF will expand its health-focused legal staffing, partner with children’s Medicaid organizations, and help bring down healthcare costs for the families they serve. “Can we immediately get them a dehumidifier, or address roach infestation issues by working with landlords?” Lucas says, as an example. “We’ve never had a way to really focus on healthcare issues and costs. We can be really intentional about this now.”

At the state legislature, Georgia House Bill 346, which would help protect some tenants who complain about unhealthy housing from eviction, was recently tabled by the Senate.

Kathryn Lawler is executive director of the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement (ARCHI), which partners with AVLF, and says that its new focus comes at a critical time. “Health is very uneven in our metro areas,” she says. “We have statistics in some neighborhoods that rival that of the poorest areas of the country. We have vast resources in Atlanta… but the biggest health problem is that they’re not available to everyone.”

In Atlanta, the nation’s capital of income inequality, life expectancy can vary depending on where you live, too. In Thomasville Heights, a child born there can expect to live until 72, six years less than the county and national average.

She says this is why AVLF’s holistic, on-the-ground approach is unique. “I think people probably understand why housing and health are related: If you live in poor quality housing, you get sick more,” Lawler says. “But I think it’s important to build a program to connect them. That’s why this grant is a special thing.”

Sonam Vashi is an award-winning freelance journalist in Atlanta writing about affordable housing for Saporta Report. Her reporting, which usually focuses on criminal justice, equity, and the South, has also appeared with CNN, the Washington Post, Atlanta magazine, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. She is the vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, and she grew up in Gwinnett County.

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