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Posted Feb 12, 2013

Powell Fellow Kim Rolla Will Help Protect Rights of Public Housing Residents in Charlottesville Area

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"Housing work is perfect for me because you develop these connections in the community," said Powell Fellow Kimberly Rolla. "It's very conducive to developing relationships, which is perfect for me because I'm very interested in the connections between community organizing and law."

With the availability of public housing dwindling in the face of aging buildings and redevelopment efforts that sometimes reduce the number of units, those in need of subsidized housing are facing tough times. After she graduates, University of Virginia law student Kim Rolla will be able to tackle the problem locally in Central Virginia as the Law School's 12th Powell Fellow.

Contact: Mary Wood

"Public housing is in crisis in this country," Rolla said. "They've lost almost 200,000 units of public housing in the past 15 years."

The Powell Fellowship, which offers a $40,000 salary for a graduate working in the public interest for two years, allowed Rolla to work together with legal aid attorneys and an organization of local public housing residents to design a plan to provide a range of legal services to low-income tenants. Rolla will work at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville to address housing problems on three levels, she said.

First, she will provide eviction defense and defense for those who have lost their housing subsidies, in an effort to ensure that clients don't become homeless.

"The shelter system in Charlottesville is overwhelmed," she said. "When it's not winter, it's really hard to find any shelter space whatsoever for folks, and many are looking at homelessness if they're evicted."

Second, she will try to ensure that housing conditions comply with the law, and will help tenants follow proper procedures for filing complaints and bringing problems to the attention of landlords or authorities, which may also involve going to court.

And lastly, she will coordinate with the Public Housing Association of Residents in Charlottesville, a nationally recognized tenants' organization, on the redevelopment of Charlottesville’s public housing and other critical issues identified by the organization.

"Their legal needs are growing as their organization is growing," she said. "So I'm just really happy to be able to step in and provide whatever legal support they need to be able to advocate for the tenants."

Rolla, who has volunteered with PHAR as a student, said many don't realize that the group is composed entirely of public housing residents.

"These are a lot of the clients that come in through our door," she said.  "I feel so poised to be able to start right away doing really substantive work with folks that I know and I've been able to establish a good working relationship with."

Rolla, who helped the Legal Aid Justice Center with housing issues during her first summer in law school and periodically through pro bono service since then, said the volume of housing problems brought to the organization – last year the LAJC had 1,300 landlord-tenant client intakes — is "incredible."

"People get pushed into the private market where there's either a lack of affordable housing — there's nowhere to rent — or the rentals that are there are just incredibly low-quality, substandard housing," she said. "For public housing, it's fighting tooth and nail for brick and mortar. You can cut funding to the marrow, but as long as there are these brick-and-mortar structures, we're keeping people housed. Maybe a lot of folks don't realize there's nowhere else for those extremely low-income folks to go."

Rolla, a Springfield, Va., native, worked in Richmond after graduating from the College of William & Mary. Her volunteer efforts in the state capital included service with a another organization composed of public housing residents, Residents of Public Housing of Richmond against Mass Evictions. In that capacity she also saw the impact of a lawyer working on similar issues at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, which was "instrumental" in her decision to go to law school.

"I knew that I wanted to do legal aid work," she said. "Interacting with clients is the thing that's the most exciting to me about being a lawyer — I don't know how to be an effective advocate without having that kind of daily interaction and learning from my clients about what their problems are and what they understand to be the solutions to them."

Rolla is a member of the editorial board of the Virginia Law Review, co-director of the National Lawyers Guild, and previously served as event coordinator for Lambda Law Alliance. In addition to being one of 20 students from the Class of 2013 participating in the Law and Public Service Program, she has been a membership director and a fundraising director for the Public Interest Law Association, a group devoted to raising money for students to work in public service positions during the summer.

Rolla also took the Litigation and Housing Clinic this year, which gave her a head start on her new job.

"I had two cases that went to trial in the fall. [The clinic] will get you in court," she said. "They basically created a clinic that let me start doing the job I want to do."

Last summer she worked at the public benefits unit of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, while locally she has volunteered for the UVA Living Wage Campaign as a founding member of the legal research team. Her service efforts also include working for the Mississippi Center for Justice during PILA's alternative spring break and for a local attorney on prisoner rights.

"When you consider Kim’s prior experiences and numerous talents, it is abundantly clear that whether she is in the community or in the courtroom, she will be as ready as any law student could be to hit the ground running with her proposed project," said UVA law professor Andrew Block, a mentor to Rolla. "She has all the skills, passion and the commitment necessary to do this work at a very high level.  I am so pleased for her, and for her future clients, that she received this honor and opportunity."

Rolla said she felt lucky to launch her career in such a needed area. She particularly thanked the staff of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center and her career counselor, Director of Public Service Amanda Yale, for their help with her fellowship applications.

"It's really hard to get your foot in the door, so it's amazing that the law school offers this fellowship," she said. "I imagine myself staying in Virginia for quite some time and doing direct service work. I'm so happy to have the fellowship to be able to start doing that."

Yale praised Rolla as a "legal superstar in the area of housing law."

"Part of why I love my job is because I get to know people like Kim Rolla," Yale said. "Her extensive knowledge of the issues combined with her unwavering passion and commitment to serving low-income tenants made her a standout among a very impressive group of Powell candidates.  Kim represents the whole package and I am so happy she has received the Powell and will be able continue the very important work she has already started."