A 'New Energy' for Housing Equity

January 26, 2021
Student research helps inform proposed legislation

In a typical year, students in Professor Tara Casey’s public policy course work in partnership with a number of nonprofit organizations on a range of policy-related issues, conducting advanced legal research and drafting white papers.

Last semester, though, Casey “was concerned about how you create a sense of community when half of the students are not in the classroom,” she explained. “How do you keep that sort of collaborative workshopping environment when it’s all in a disjoined space?”

Some of the solutions Casey tested in the classroom were logistical, like setting up a chat on the GroupMe app to facilitate sharing of information and research. Other changes were more focused on the curriculum itself. Instead of dividing the class into teams to work with various nonprofits, Casey identified one organization that had a number of policy issues under the same thematic umbrella. Working with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, student teams focused their efforts on the timely and topical issue of housing equity. “My hope was that, by having them all under the theme of housing equity, that would then enable the students to engage more with each other on research and on feedback,” said Casey. 

In teams of two, students delved into topics ranging from foreclosure to discrimination in home buying to credit access. “With this year’s intersection of the economic fallout from COVID and rising awareness of systemic racism, some of these issues are particularly acute for a number of our community,” said Casey. Each group was then tasked with conducting interviews and research to produce a policy memo for presentation to the VPLC. “The goal is that possibly their work may translate into legislative proposals for the upcoming General Assembly session,” said Casey. 

This year, that very goal was realized in the form of the Preserving the American Dream Act. Filed by patrons Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegates Jeff Bourne, Dan Helmer, and Luke Torian, the legislation proposes changes to Virginia’s foreclosure laws, and offers more protections for manufactured homes. And student research helped inform that legislation, according to VPLC Executive Director Jay Speer. It “gives us the ammunition we’re going to need to get the legislation passed,” he said.

Speer met with each team of students weekly to help guide them in their research. Students presented their final policy memo to a panel that included Speer as well as representatives from Housing Opportunities Made Equal and lobbyists from Commonwealth Strategy Group, a firm hired by VPLC to advance their proposed legislation. The research “really helped educate our lobbyists, too,” added Speer.

Olivia Seksinsky, L’21, one of the students in the public policy course, spent the semester working on due process protections in the Virginia foreclosure system. With her project partner, they connected with local attorneys and housing advocates to better understand existing inequities in the system, and then examined the processes in other states. “My main takeaway from this course is that public policy is influenced by a variety of factors, including what is happening in the world around us,” said Seksinsky. “I felt it was so timely for VPLC to take on the development of an omnibus bill centered on housing equity during a time when so many people are experiencing housing instability.”

The perspectives that students like Seksinsky bring to the project are part of what attracted the VPLC to the partnership in the first place. “I’ve been doing legislative work forever,” explained Speer. “You get somewhat beaten down by how long it takes to do things … Then the students come in. It’s a new energy.”