By Phillip Ensler, Appleseed Policy Counsel

CAMDEN, ALABAMA — In 1965,  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Wilcox County to encourage black residents to register to vote. He told them, “You are somebody.” Yet in my visits to Camden over the past few months, I learned about and witnessed the cruel effects of black families being treated as less than “somebody” for decades following Dr. King’s appearance. 

I went to Camden to conduct a civil legal needs assessment of several Black Black Belt counties. I saw first hand the substandard housing conditions that still plague black families there today as a result of years of inferior treatment.

According to residents of Camden, registering to vote and voting for one’s candidate of choice could be dangerous for a black person in Camden in 1965. Black sharecroppers risked retaliation if they did not follow their landowner’s orders – which included not registering to vote or voting only for the candidate the owner dictated them to. Black farmers and their families were already subject to harsh living conditions, including lack of indoor plumbing, and they did not want to do anything that would cause the landowner to inflict further pain. 

Starting in the late 1960’s, the federal government offered black residents—especially sharecroppers—some relief from the tyranny they were living under. The federal government contracted with a private company to develop single-family, affordable homes for black and white residents in Camden. Families could either buy the homes outright from the federal government or they could take out a federal housing loan.

 Some homes were to be built in “black” parts town and some on the “white” side. According to one Camden resident, “we were just happy to get somewhere with indoor plumbing.” These houses offered more than just better conditions: they offered a sense of dignity and freedom. They gave black families the opportunity to rid themselves of a white landowner’s rule and a greater ability to answer Dr. King’s call to exercise their freedom. 

Hattie Bridges was a teenager when the houses became available for purchase. Up until then, her family, the Smiths, lived in Miller’s Ferry, where her father was a sharecropper. Her parents supported the Civil Rights Movement, but prohibited Hattie and her siblings from participating in any protests, including Dr. King’s visit, because they feared retaliation from the white landowner on whose property they lived and farmed. Hattie’s father eventually took out a loan from the Federal Housing Administration to purchase one of the homes built by the government. Hattie was happy to have somewhere to stay and glad to get in a house with a bathroom. 

That happiness was short-lived. Structural deficiencies made for a difficult living situation. The house was made entirely of wood. Rainwater would leak through the roof, eventually getting so bad that they needed a new one. They visited the local United States Department of Agriculture and Federal Housing Administration office in downtown Camden to seek assistance. The government told them there was nothing they could do. Without the money or options to live elsewhere, the Smith’s scraped together what money they could to eventually put a tin roof on the house. 

But that was just the first of endless struggles. The government promised to install a furnace in the home for the cold winter months. It never happened. The Smiths endured year after year in that house, paying for the constant repairs to keep it habitable. Hattie now lives around the corner from her 93 year-old mother, Dollie, who still lives in the same home. The family took out loans and spent what they had to make the home more comfortable for Ms. Smith as she lives out her years hooked up to an oxygen tank. 

Hattie and her family were not the only ones to experience such shoddy conditions. In 1969, the Stallworths purchased one of the wooden homes constructed by the federal government. Weedie Stallworth, whose parents bought the house, recalls it taking only three days for the builders to construct the entire house.

The concrete foundation deteriorated over time, as the home was built on swamp land. The foundation decayed to the point of leaving cracks throughout the kitchen floor. Like Hattie’s family, the Stallworths were promised a furnace. There was a small closet built in the hallway where they were told it would be installed. Fifty years later, there is still no furnace. The Stallworths used layers of blankets and space heaters to try and stay warm.

The circuit breaker that came with the house did not have enough amperage to supply electricity for the entire home, and the building was filled with faulty wiring. This caused the breaker to blow many times, including one instance in which it caused a house fire that damaged the house and burned down a tree in the front yard. The wood ceiling easily leaked and eventually cracked from rainfall. The one shower in the house does not work, so Weedie and her family travel to a relative’s home to bathe. 

When Weedie washes the dishes in the kitchen sink, brown water occasionally comes up through the shower drain. Sometimes when they flush the toilet, water comes up in the kitchen sink. The pipes from all of the plumbing stick out into the backyard through the original holes in the wood that they were built in. The openings in the wood allow insects and drafts to slip into the house. 

Over the years, the federal government periodically sent contractors or plumbers to make repairs. But those band aid fixes always only lasted for so long. 

After pleading with the government and the power company to install a safer and more sustainable electrical system, Weedie gave up. The home is now without electricity. This means no air conditioning or fans during the brutal summer months. With their house unbearably hot, Weedie and her family stay away from their home during the daytime as long as they can, only coming back in the evening as the sun goes down. 

These issues were not unique to Hattie and Weedie. Black families living in dozens of the wooden government homes throughout Camden have endured similar horrific conditions. The government dug holes in the backyards for septic tanks that were never installed. The government never installed heat. Multiple homes have caught fire and burned down, likely due to the faulty wiring and overheating caused by inadequate circuit boxes. Termites ate away at the wood of many of the homes. 

In another home, the ceiling—weakened by rainfall—collapsed one night onto a mother and her two young children. Fortunately, they escaped without injury. That same home has a gaping crack running several feet long through the kitchen floor. The foundation around the back door of the house has deteriorated to the point that there is a gap of several inches between the bottom of the door and the base of the house. The owner stuffs clothing and towels in the gap to prevent rain water and rodents from entering the home. The bathroom sink completely stopped working some time ago, leaving them to use the kitchen sink for basic hygiene, such as brushing their teeth.

Several years ago, Camden City Councilman Gene Mack—who represents many of the neighborhoods in which black families purchased the government homes—started learning from many of his constituents about the conditions of their homes. He quickly realized a pattern: the homes in the “black” parts of town were all made of wood. They had been built in just a matter of days. They had many of the same, inadequate conditions. The owners had long track records of pleading with the federal government to make improvements, yet found little success. The residents had forked over thousands of their own dollars to make repairs when they could. 

Councilman Mack was determined to find some sort of relief for these families. He says he tried to contact the company who had contracted with the government to build the homes, only to find out that they were no longer in business and that their founder was incarcerated in another state for fraud. He looked into some documents from the homes and gathered information throughout town. He claims that black and white families paid the same prices for their homes. Yet there was one appalling distinction. The homes built for black families were all made of wood. The homes built for white families were made out of sturdier and more sustainable brick. 

The black homeowners assumed that the federal government would build the best possible houses. They assumed that the federal government would treat them equally. They did not know that there was a systematic pattern of substandard housing conditions. Most never contacted a lawyer because they never thought that they might have a legal issue. One resident who did ask a lawyer if there was a potential lawsuit, was told that the construction company was no longer operating and therefore there was no one to hold liable for the conditions. 

Councilman Mack has not been one to simply accept that answer and move on. He believes there is still justice to be found. He and the dozens of families are just not sure how to pursue it. Identifying and securing legal guidance or any avenues of relief has continued to be a challenge.

Appleseed is committed to working with Councilman Mack and the residents of Camden to seek justice. We will partner with them to explore and advocate for potential remedies that could improve the conditions of their homes. More than fifty years after Dr. King told black residents of Camden that they mattered, perhaps the homeowners there will be shown that they matter. 

October marks Pro Bono Month, in which Alabama celebrates the difference made by pro bono lawyers throughout the state who serve our communities by providing free civil legal aid to those in need.

These volunteer lawyers–along with lawyers from Legal Services Alabama and clinics–help level the playing field and expand access to justice for low-income Alabamians.

For instance, in housing cases the deck is usually stacked against tenants.

While approximately 90% of landlords are able to hire a lawyer to represent them, only 10% of tenants have legal representation. This gives landlords an advantage over tenants who may have limited knowledge of the intricacies of the law, and therefore makes it more likely that the landlord will prevail in the case. On the other hand, tenants who are represented by counsel are much more likely to remain in their home in the face of eviction.

The lack of access to counsel–and especially civil legal aid–is not limited to just housing cases. Last year, more than 422,000 low income households experienced over 733,000 legal issues, including veterans seeking their benefits, workers at risk of having wages illegally garnished, and Alabamians facing domestic abuse. Yet due to Alabama’s lack of adequate funding and resources for this necessary service, approximately 84% of the civil legal needs of eligible Alabamians went unmet.

This dire lack of access to representation can be attributed to Alabama being only one of two states that fails to provide funding for civil legal services.

The need to fully fund these services is illustrated by the case of Bridgette Morrow, a low-income mother in Tuscaloosa.

From the time she first started renting the home in 2016, Ms. Morrow wanted for her family what all Alabamians want: safe and decent living conditions.

Instead, she found herself living in a house that lacked basic plumbing, with defective smoke detectors and faulty electrical wiring, among many other hazards.

Ms. Morrow, who lives below the poverty level, spent approximately $2,500 of her own money to install plumbing and subflooring. The landlord refused to address the other dangerous issues, so Ms. Morrow attempted to make the repairs on her own.

She also reported her landlord to authorities for his egregious violations of the law. As retaliation, he evicted her.

Ms. Morrow could not afford an attorney, so the Civil Law Clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law, along with the pro bono support from the firm Winston & Strawn LLP helped her sue her former landlord to recover the money she had spent repairing his property.

A lower court ruled in favor of the landlord, who argued that her right to sue ended with her eviction – as though a person imminently facing homelessness due to eviction should be expected to file a lawsuit in the middle of desperately seeking shelter.

Morrow’s civil legal aid lawyers appealed her case. Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama, filed an amicus curiae brief in support of upholding the rights of Ms. Morrow–and all tenants throughout the state–to hold their landlord accountable for their violations of the law.

In April 2018, the Court of Civil Appeals reversed the lower court and ruled that tenants like her can sue their landlord after the eviction process ends. This allowed Ms. Morrow to sue her landlord to recover for the funds and labor she put into trying to make the home safe.

Her civil legal aid lawyers stood by her side through the end, as they represented her until she finally recovered $5,000 from the landlord.

While Morrow was able to receive the legal representation she needed, this is seldom the case for low income Alabamians who face a legal issue.

Despite the vital needs faced by low income Alabamians, civil legal aid providers in Alabama rely primarily on federal funds to operate. An annual funding gap of approximately $36.6 million leaves the needs of almost 84% of low-income households unmet each year.

Civil legal aid is not only essential to Alabamians in need, it also provides substantial benefits to Alabama’s communities. As a recent study from the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation found, of every $1 invested in Alabama civil legal aid services, the citizens of the state receive almost $12 in economic benefits. That is a Social Return on Investment of 1,195%, which means tens of millions of dollars in value added to Alabama communities.

The best way to honor the selfless work of pro bono lawyers and expand access to those services is for Alabama to start investing in civil legal aid to ensure all low-income residents have equal access to Alabama’s justice system.

by Phil Ensler, Policy Counsel 

Victims of domestic violence, tenants facing eviction, and veterans seeking their benefits are among the thousands of low-income Alabamians who receive free legal assistance from civil legal aid attorneys because they cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.

Despite the essential need for these services, Alabama is one of only two states that does not fund civil legal aid. Instead, legal aid providers in Alabama rely on the federal government, non-profit organizations, and sometimes municipalities for funding.

This  leaves thousands of Alabama’s most vulnerable residents without access to lawyers. It is also a bad business decision, with far-reaching consequences for our local economies.

According to a recent study published by the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, for every $1 invested in civil legal services, Alabama communities received almost $12 of immediate and long-term economic benefits. That is an extraordinary social return on investment of 1,195% that amounts to a value of over $200 million gained from civil legal services.

Despite these benefits, civil legal aid in Alabama is grossly underfunded. Alabama is the lowest funded state for civil legal aid at a rate of $9.85 per eligible person. This amounts to half of the national average of $20 per person, and is a stark contrast to the highest funded state, which is 11 times greater than Alabama. In 2016, $8.9 million was spent in Alabama on civil legal aid. In order to meet the national average, Alabama would need to increase its spending to $18 million, and to fully meet the needs of all eligible Alabamians it would need to spend $45.5 million. By fully funding civil legal aid, Alabama would not merely be spending money to ensure that all Alabamians have access to justice, but also making a wise investment in our economy.

Funding civil legal services yields such a high return on investment because legal aid providers represent low-income Alabamians in a range of areas that impact the economy, including housing, employment, family issues, public benefits, consumer protection, and community issues.

These services can help a family keep a roof over their heads and avoid homelessness. For others, it means restructuring crippling debt to avoid financial ruin.  For some elderly clients, this help means a recovery of social security payments or other federal benefits that had been mistakenly suspended. For some veterans, it secures much-needed and hard-earned benefits. For others, these services means better, safer custody arrangements for children or even a long-awaited adoption.  

All of these outcomes strengthen our local economies, helping people remain in their homes, protect their wages, and resolve disputes that allow them to better support themselves and contribute positively to their communities. Alabama would be wise to heed the findings of the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation study and start investing in civil legal services.

To learn more about our work to ensure access to justice for all Alabamians, check out our website.