April Walton just wanted a place to call home, where her three children and disabled mother could flip a switch and turn on the lights if they needed them, enjoy heat in winter or warm water if they wanted.
When she finally found a place in LaGrange a few years ago, it was the first real break she’d gotten in a long while. Like the rest of us, she applied for utility services, but unlike most of us, Walton had little choice of a provider in this city of some 30,000 located 60 miles southwest of Atlanta. In LaGrange, residents are required to get those services from the city.
Walton promptly applied and on move-in day, that was it. She had lights and running water. Then her past caught up with her.
Attached to her utility bill was a $900 unpaid court fine levied against her seven years earlier for a misdemeanor marijuana conviction.
The 40-year-old tried mightily to make good on the debt but on a hotel maid’s salary just couldn’t keep up with the payment agreement. For every step forward she made, she took two steps back. Two years ago, after a series of terminations, the city shut off the family’s utilities one final time.
Walton, her kids, and mom had to leave.
If you’re having trouble believing the veracity of that story, you might want to break out of that bubble you’re living in because folks, I can’t make this stuff up.
It happens quite regularly in LaGrange. Primarily to African Americans. Primarily to the poor.
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Between 2015 and 2016 in LaGrange, for instance, the most recent data available shows nearly 90% of people who owed court debt and had that debt attached to their utility accounts were African American residents, according to Ateeyah Hollie, an attorney with the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.
Attaching court fines to people’s utility bills is not only cruel, it further exacerbates housing instability.
“Under this policy, a person — and their entire family — can lose their heat and water because of an unpaid traffic ticket,” Hollie said.
She has been fighting this practice since May 2017, when she along with the National Immigration Law Center and Relman Colfax PLLC filed suit against the city on behalf of Walton, other residents, and the Georgia and Troup County NAACP and Atlanta-based Project South, a leadership development organization.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, asks, among other things, that the city stop conditioning access to water, electricity and gas on payment of court fines, a practice that largely impacts African American residents. The suit also challenges the city’s practice of denying utility services to people who lack state-issued identification, which primarily falls on the shoulders of LaGrange’s Latino community.
“Racial discrimination in housing and housing-related services is illegal under the Federal Fair Housing Act. But LaGrange’s utility policies cause unparalleled housing instability among its black and Latino communities in violation of federal law,” Hollie said. “Also, Georgia law says a person’s access to utilities shouldn’t depend on whether they have unrelated debt.”
The city balked at the claims and filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the Fair Housing Act didn’t apply to people already in their homes and requiring utility customers to provide Social Security numbers and valid government-issued IDs is both rational and reasonable.
Jeffery M. Todd, the city’s attorney, said in response to emailed questions that the ordinance allowing collateral debts to be attached to utility bills was passed in 2004 after the Georgia Legislature modified state law to expressly allow for unpaid fines to be converted to civil judgments.
In addition, he said, the city has yet to find an example of utilities being either denied at the application stage or terminated because of an outstanding civil judgment.
“Customers with civil judgments open accounts without regard to an outstanding judgment routinely, and then often enter an agreement with the city to pay toward that debt each month,” Todd said. “In every instance, we have seen thus far, any utility disconnections have occurred as they would with any other customer … for non-payment of the utility portion of the bill.”
The district court agreed the Fair Housing Act didn’t protect people once they obtained housing, and later dismissed the lawsuit.
Interestingly, both city ordinance and the application for utilities clearly state: Any applicant for utility service who owes an unpaid utility bill or other debt … including but not limited to court judgments and fines, shall pay such unpaid bill or debt prior to obtaining utility service.
In an appeal to the 11th Circuit supported by other legal organizations and former assistant secretaries of HUD, plaintiffs’ attorneys asked for a reversal, arguing that the Fair Housing Act’s protections don’t end once a person signs a lease or buys a home. People should be able to challenge housing discrimination regardless of when it occurs, plaintiffs claimed.
The court agreed and granted the appeal last October.
“We’re now back in the federal district court where we started,” Hollie said.
Meanwhile, April Walton, who works in a nursing home, has been forced to put her mother in a nursing home while she and her two youngest children live with a family member.
Here’s what else makes Walton’s story so egregious.
This is not a new thing. It’s been happening for at least more than a decade.
Plus in LaGrange, a person seeking public housing must first report any outstanding utility debt owed to the local housing authority. That means that in LaGrange having unpaid court fines on one’s utility account can make it difficult to get access to subsidized housing.
“Parents know that if they don’t have utilities, they will lose their homes and possibly their children,” Hollie said. “I don’t think I can overstate the cruelty of this practice and how it harms LaGrange’s communities of color. This is a question of fairness: Do we want to deprive entire families of heat, water and lights because of unpaid court fines?”
What’s clear is being in the criminal justice system lowers your chances of getting housing and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s for a felony conviction or a traffic ticket. Regardless of the charges’ severity, the housing injustice is real, and any efforts to improve housing equality, access and justice must address the pervasive use of criminal record discrimination in depriving communities of safe housing.
The last time I was in LaGrange, it was to talk to city officials about their efforts to improve race relations, to counter the perception that government operated exclusively for the good of whites. They had created the Racial Trustbuilding Initiative to build and ultimately remove barriers that prevented full access to opportunity for all.
“We’ve been dealing with racial issues in America at least 400 years,” Mayor Jim Thornton told me. “We’re not going to fix this overnight. That’s not a cop-out, but my goal is to try to make incremental progress.”
They were making progress. The conversations I had with them felt sincere. Now I can’t help wondering if it were all just sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
All of us deserve a warm place to live with lights and running water. All of us should pay our debt, but none of us should be forced to pay for our transgressions into perpetuity.
Please, mayor, stop this practice now. The time has come to make this right.
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