Editor's note: This article belongs to our Impact Stories series in which scholars, activists, artists, policymakers, and everyday people share their experiences putting OBI's research and principles into action in their communities.
In the summer of 2021, I attended OBI's virtual seminar, "The Roots of Structural Racism: Residential Segregation in the US," as part of my preparation to begin receiving clients in my role as an eviction resolution specialist for a pilot program in Whatcom County, Washington. The Eviction Resolution Pilot Program is a statewide program designed by the Washington state legislature and county Superior Courts in response to the economic hardships brought about by Covid-19 and the local and national eviction moratoria.
I so appreciated the connections that were drawn in this event between neighborhood poverty rates and other quality-of-life measures, and patterns of racial segregation. Since my program had not yet started accepting clients at this time, I spent most of my time reviewing the program laws and policies, and learning about current issues/trends in rental housing and evictions both locally and nationally. I felt that it was important, during this planning stage, to pay attention to whom are affected by housing instability, and how that is a function of racial segregation and redlining. This was profound background information about the issues facing my program's potential clients.
Although the seminar was focused on cities and metro areas outside of my region, I appreciated the depth of the analysis including projected future outcomes, incarceration rates, and life expectancy. This gave me ideas on how to observe these patterns within Washington state and Whatcom County. I also appreciated the US Segregation Map that was presented during this seminar. With this information, I began to see housing instability from more of a structural perspective rather than individual. The choices that individual clients make, and their options regarding barriers to stable housing, are easier to understand with this context on historical and current access to stable housing among racial groups.
This context helps me make decisions about the program and about specific cases from an equity perspective. I remind myself that equity does not mean giving everyone the same resources. It means prioritizing resources to those who need them the most. For example, we have a specific case manager who primarily works with our Spanish-speaking (including bilingual) clients. This is helpful because these clients often have additional concerns regarding citizenship status, informal employment, and potential legal consequences. It is important from a program perspective to have a staff member who can devote attention to these questions and build rapport with this community. I take note of phenomena such as Native American clients who may be at risk of eviction on their ancestral lands. This is a justice issue much larger than my program, but important to understand historically. In general, it is common for our clients to report that their housing stability has been affected either directly or indirectly by such issues as unemployment/underemployment, lack of access to child care, lack of access to banking, incarceration, domestic violence, chronic illness or disability, and addiction. Although we do not make any case decisions on the basis of a client's race, it is helpful to consider these issues from the perspective of racial segregation.
A majority of our clients fall below 80% of Area Median Income (this is the income qualification to apply for rental assistance), and many fall below Federal Poverty Level. During the first 12 months of the program, we opened 2,418 cases, with an overall resolution rate of 96%. In that same time frame, our clients received a total of at least $4,345,868.61 in rental assistance funds, and the cases that proceeded to mediation resulted in a resolution rate of 88%.
It has been so insightful to deepen my knowledge of issues related to housing insecurity, racial segregation, and access to justice via my work in this program and the research conducted by OBI. I feel well-positioned to help my community make progress toward increased access to justice and improved public health outcomes. Thank you for doing this important research and sharing your findings with the world!Mia Gover is the Lead Eviction Resolution Specialist at the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center in Washington State. Contact the center at ERPP@whatcomdrc.org.