Q&A with Cashauna Hill, Fair Housing Attorney at the Oregon Law Center
What is your primary charge as the Fair Housing Attorney for the Oregon Law Center?
The mission of the Oregon Law Center is to achieve justice for the low-income communities of Oregon by providing a full range of high-quality civil legal services. I am charged with coordinating and litigating housing discrimination cases.
Another part of my job which I really love and enjoy is doing education and outreach to the community, to let people know about their rights as tenants, for example. I also do a lot of building and maintaining relationships with social services providers, and other partners who work with potential clients. I get to learn about the different issues people are faced with, and in turn, I get to explain how the law works, and how I can help or show how they advocate for themselves.
I get a lot of calls and referrals from attorney friends, and social service providers that I’ve worked with.
As a fair housing attorney, what are the types of issues you’re handling?
Being in this job gives me the chance to help people with a wide variety of needs and issues, and I provide a range of services for my clients. Sometimes the work requires simply writing a letter to a housing provider, to explain the state of fair housing law as it relates to a policy that adversely affects my client. Disability issues commonly require this type of response. For instance, I once had a client who was terminally ill, and his doctor prescribed the use of an air conditioner for use in his rental unit. The housing provider then instituted a policy that would require my client to purchase renter’s insurance since he was using a window air conditioning unit in the apartment. I wrote a letter to the landlord explaining current fair housing law requirements to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. The landlord granted the request to waive the insurance requirement.
In my job, I work closely with colleagues from other organizations. I’m currently handling a case with an attorney for Legal Aid Services of Oregon on behalf of a hearing-impaired woman who stayed in a homeless shelter. She required the use of a service dog, but the shelter’s no-pets policy prevented her from having access to her service dog during her stay in shelter.
I have gotten calls about race discrimination; mainly from tenants subjected to uncomfortable or hostile living environments by other tenants or property managers. Unfortunately, housing providers sometimes fail to address incidents of racial harassment, or they engage in this type of behavior themselves.
It’s unfortunate that sexual harassment is the singlemost common issue in the work I do with low-income people, especially among women. Sexual harassment in housing can either involve another tenant, a property manager or maintenance supervisor harassing a female tenant. In my cases, I’m seeing a great deal of retaliatory action when the tenant complained about the harassment.
There are also a broad range lot of cases involving immigrants. I hear from folks in various immigrant communities that landlords still, in this day and age, refuse to rent to certain families based on their ethnicity or national origin. Further, sometimes when landlords do rent to immigrants, they might impose different requirements are imposed upon immigrant tenants, such as asking for documentation to prove their legal status.
What was your career path?
In 2002, I graduated from Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. I went to law school at Tulane University. Throughout my education, I was always interested in social justice issues, particularly the disenfranchisement and marginalization of various populations. I always knew that I wanted to be involved in helping people in those situations. In my third year of law school, I was a student attorney in the Tulane Civil Litigation Clinic. I got to help people in poverty with their civil rights claims, and was fortunate enough to work on a fair housing case. I really fell in love with the work, because I could see the difference I was making in people’s lives.
My studies and experiences have really opened my eyes to how housing discrimination impacts communities – in many cases, for several generations. I’ve seen first-hand how patterns of discrimination perpetuate marginalization for certain populations.
Right out of law school, I had the amazing experience of clerking for a judge at the Multnomah County Circuit Court. Moving back to Portland after leaving as a child, it was great to get to know the Portland legal community. The experience gave me the chance to really figure out what I wanted to do and figuring out where I could fit in here. When this opportunity opened up, I was thrilled to have the chance to apply myself, and to do work that I’m really passionate about.
What are some trends in the housing discrimination cases that you’re handling?
I’ve observed a growing number of cases involving immigrant women, particularly those who are undocumented. That population is especially susceptible to harassment and intimidation. Oftentimes, immigrants and refugees don’t even know that they have rights, that some of the things that they have to endure are not lawful. It’s very disheartening to see widespread exploitation of that lack of knowledge about our laws in this country. I’ve seen many instances involving housing that are unsafe and unhealthy, because the landlords have refused to fix the problem. If the tenants do complain, then they are threatened with being reported to ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) and deportation if they report harassment.
Even people with legal status, or those who are US citizens, may not be aware of their rights. I believe that this lack of knowledge is especially prevalent with regard to sexual harassment. Some of the worst cases I’ve seen involve demands for sexual favors, in order for tenants to stay in housing.
There are also some disturbing trends in terms of race discrimination. Most housing providers know that it’s not legal to deny anyone the opportunity to rent housing based on the color of the applicant’s skin. I think what most don’t understand is that a passive unwillingness to create a non-hostile environment could also be a violation of fair housing laws. Anecdotally, I hear a lot about situations where housing providers have been made aware of harassment from management or other tenants. They choose to take a “hands-off” approach because they’re concerned of infringing upon the harasser’s right to free speech if they intervened.
How does your work impact communities of color?
Our office is very intent on making sure that we are engaging communities of color. We have a concerted effort to reach out to diverse communities and make sure that their voices are heard. We’re talking to culturally specific organizations to find out the issues that their populations are facing. Our hope is that people feel empowered as a result of our engagement, and know that they have somewhere to go, that help is available. We’re also very committed to ensuring language access. We have several bilingual attorneys, as well as support staff, in our office; among them, they speak Spanish, Vietnamese, French, and Haitian Creole. If someone comes in with interpretation needs, we work with court-certified language interpreters who can serve both the client and our staff.
What do you consider as the most challenging aspect of your work?
The most challenging aspect of my work is not being able to help everybody. I love my work, and interacting with the clients. But I know that I can’t always offer a solution to their issues. We just don’t have the resources to help everyone who needs it: at this point, we’re able to help about 2 out of every 10 clients that ask for our assistance.
How does your cultural background impact the way you do your work?
My cultural background allows me to have some credibility when I say that I’m not working as part of the status quo system that continues to disenfranchise low-income people. I feel that my background allows me to be in tune with the situations that my clients are in, to have a deeper understanding about why they may be presenting in a certain way. I understand why they may not be “nice” when they first come in to the office, for example. A woman who is assertive may not necessarily have a chip on her shoulder. Rather, she’s used to having to advocate and fight for herself, and is used to being told that her issues and opinions don’t matter.
My cultural background and experiences help to establish a baseline level of trust with my clients, because I have the opportunity to connect with my clients on an instinctual and emotional level that allows me to really understand what they’re going through.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Working with the clients is the most rewarding part of my job. I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve worked with: a great deal about grace, strength, humility, and courage. The people I work are facing the most stressful and most distressful situations – they don’t feel safe in their homes. For many of us, home is the place we go when we want to get away from the troubles of the world. But my clients don’t feel safe in that space – they’re being harassed and threatened. Yet, even in the midst of these situations, my clients know that what they’re facing is not right, and they’re courageous enough to stand up for themselves. They want to be empowered, and I’m blessed to be able to help them in that process.
Colors of Influence || Winter 2011