Summer CAMHP in the Parks program brings community lawyering to mobile home parks

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019

When residents of mobile home parks encounter a problem, legal aid attorneys across the state are there to help. From crumbling, ill-maintained park infrastructure to illegal mid-term rent increases, residents often face legal challenges and cannot afford a private attorney.

But in these areas with severe need for legal assistance, many residents do not know that legal aid is an option or lack the ability to make it to a legal aid office.

To remove that barrier, legal aid offices have begun using the tools of “community lawyering” to reach those who might otherwise slip through the cracks of the legal machine. Community lawyering involves collaboratively identifying problem-solving opportunities with residents by maintaining a presence in the community and using the skills of the lawyer to provide a means for residents to better their own situations.

As the statewide legal aid organization, VPLC has been training law student interns of various legal aid organizations in community lawyering and the law surrounding manufactured housing as part of its Campaign for Affordable Mobile Home Parks (CAMHP).

Staff attorney Joe Ciszek leads the program as VPLC’s “CAMHP Counselor at Law.” Joe joined VPLC as a Richmond Law “Bridge-to-Practice” fellow after previously interning at Blue Ridge Legal Services and Legal Aid Justice Center. Throughout law school, Joe stayed connected to the community through his pro bono work, eventually receiving the Richmond Law award for the single most commitment to public interest in his graduating class. He now spends his days knocking on doors in manufactured home communities, building relationships with residents, and working to solve their legal problems together. He ultimately strives for resident ownership of the community.

CAMHP began in June of this year, with staff and interns visiting a manufactured home community and meeting with roughly 25 residents to discuss legal rights and issues the community faces. Many residents complained of arbitrary rules that are being enforced unfairly. For instance, the park owner has been selling water to the residents at confusing and varying rates, which exceeded $500 a month for one resident without explanation.

Until CAMHP had visited the community, residents did not know they could receive free legal advice from their local legal aid. Furthermore, residents felt trapped, sure that complaining to the landlord would result in retribution. In collaboration with CAMHP, the residents discussed potential solutions to these issues, informed by the law and solutions that legal aid can offer.

Learning of the help legal aid can offer provided great relief for residents, but more work remains to be done—not only in this community, but across the state. Law student interns will return many more times to the community, while Joe will continue spreading community lawyering to other legal aid offices as the Summer CAMHP project continues.

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