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Take down Confederate statues, residents tell Monument Avenue Commission members

Residents of a predominantly African-American neighborhood have called on a city commission to recommend removing the Confederate statues along Monument Avenue.

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By Scott Malone

Residents of a predominantly African-American neighborhood have called on a city commission to recommend removing the Confederate statues along Monument Avenue.

“You can rest assured, these statues are coming down,” said Phil Wilayto of the Virginia Defenders of Freedom, Justice & Equality, a social justice organization.

Wilayto addressed Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission at a meeting Thursday evening at Fifth Baptist Church. The meeting was hosted by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which is sponsored by the Virginia Defenders group and advocates the removal of the Confederate statues.

Five members of the Monument Avenue Commission attended the meeting and listened to the community’s thoughts concerning what Richmond should do about the hot-topic issue.

About 30 people attended the meeting. At times, they were joking – and at other times, they were tearful, angry and emotionally raw about the statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate figures.

“There is no context where you can put my ancestors’ suffering,” said Sacred Ground member Joseph Rogers, his eyes tear-filled and voice shaking.

The commission said it has received about 1,300 comments so far about the statues. While some people want to remove them, others have suggested providing historical context by projecting images over the statues, placing explanatory signs or other objects around the feet of the statues or adding non-Confederate statues to Monument Avenue.

Attendees at the meeting offered additional ideas. One man suggested selling the statues to another locality that would install them in a park. Others suggested taking down the statues but leaving the pedestals, or removing the men from the statues and leaving the horses.

At moments, a sense of frustration could be felt directed toward the commission members.

“You are arguing over things little children already know,” said Chuck Richardson, a former City Council member. “You are caught in a political conundrum.”

Members of the commission reminded the audience that they cannot decide whether the statues will be removed. The commission’s job is to offer suggestions to Stoney. Then the issue would go to the Richmond City Council, which would need approval from the General Assembly to take down the monuments.

“If I did not think [Mayor Stoney] wanted us to do an honest appraisal, I would not be here,” said commission member Gregg Kimball, director of education and outreach for the Library of Virginia. “I wouldn’t completely give up on the political process.”

Citing moral obligations, many members of the audience urged the commission to advise Stoney to remove the statues. Commission members said that is one option being considered.

However, according to commission member Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Center in Richmond, the “Police Department strongly advised” against taking down the statues at this time due to the level of emotion on the issue.

Last September, protests and counterprotests were held in Richmond near the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue.

Tensions seemed to simmer down as the meeting came to a close. Members of the commission said they hope to present their report to the mayor before Memorial Day. They thanked members of the Sacred Ground Project for hosting the event as well as those who voiced their opinions.

For more information or to submit comments to the Monument Avenue Commission, visitmonumentavenuecommission.org.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Bernie Sanders to Rally Supporters at Arthur Ashe Center this Thursday

Richmond is one stop in Bernie Sanders tour of Virginia as the Commonwealth gets ready for Super Tuesday next week.

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This Thursday, February 27th, the Arthur Ashe Junior Athletic Center at 3001 N Arthur Ashe Blvd will host Senator Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The rally was originally scheduled to take place at the National but the campaign has moved to a larger venue due to “overwhelming response” according to the Sanders campaign. Doors will open at 2 PM and Sanders is expected to speak around 3:30 PM. The rally is free to the public, and tickets are not required. Entrance will be on a first-come, first-served basis. The campaign is asking for attendees to RSVP but it is not required.

According to recent polling of Democrats by Monmouth University, Sanders is neck and neck with Biden and Bloomberg.

Among those who identify themselves as Democrats, Sanders (22%), Biden (21%), and Bloomberg (20%) are on equal footing. Other candidates get less support among self-identified Democrats, including Buttigieg (13%), Klobuchar (7%), and Warren (6%). Among those who call themselves independents (plus a small number of self-identified Republicans), Bloomberg (25%) and Sanders (23%) share the lead, followed by Biden (13%), Klobuchar (13%), and Buttigieg (8%), with Warren getting only 2%. White voters are split between Bloomberg (25%) and Sanders (23%), while Biden leads among black voters (37%). One-third of voters under 50 years old prefer Sanders (35%), while a similar number of those aged 65 and over back Bloomberg (32%).

Virginia is one of 14 states voting March 3rd on Super Tuesday.

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Downtown

Bill allows renters to make certain repairs if landlord doesn’t respond

A bill that gives tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions, recently passed the Virginia state Senate and is expected to advance in the House.

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By Will Gonzalez

A bill that gives tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions, recently passed the Virginia Senate and is expected to advance in the House.

Senators voted unanimously in committee and on the floor to pass Senate Bill 905, introduced by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, which gives a tenant the right to seek repairs that constitute a fire hazard or serious threat to the life, health or safety of occupants. Such conditions include the infestation of rodents and lack of heat, hot or cold running water, light, electricity, or adequate sewage disposal facilities.

Tenants would have the right to secure a contractor to fix the issues and deduct the cost from their rent.

First, the tenant would submit a written complaint to their landlord and allow them 14 days to fix the issue before the tenant secures a licensed contractor to complete the repairs. The tenant must provide documentation and itemized receipts of the repair to the landlord. The tenant would be allowed to deduct the costs of the repairs, not exceeding one month’s rent, from subsequent rent payments.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, proposed an amendment that was rejected during the Senate committee hearing, requiring the tenant to obtain two repair estimates.

Currently, state law allows the landlord more time to fix issues that compromise the health and safety of the tenant. The tenant can file a detailed, written complaint and give notice that the rental agreement will terminate on or after 30 days, if the landlord hasn’t fixed the issue within 21 days. If the problem is fixed, the tenant can’t break the lease.

A tenant, though legally empowered under current law to terminate the rental agreement would still, in most cases, need to have a deposit plus first month’s rent to secure a new place, which can present a roadblock for renters.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center noted its support of the bill and stated that in addition to speeding up the repair process, the proposed bill would reduce the number of cases in Virginia’s courts because tenants are given the opportunity to handle issues themselves instead of having to take landlords to court. Christine Marra, the group’s director of housing advocacy, said that the bill benefits tenants by allowing them to deduct the cost of donated repairs.

“There are a number of nonprofits across the commonwealth that do home repair for homeowners, but will not do them for renters because they don’t want to unjustly or unduly enrich the landlord,” Marra said. “I hope this will encourage them to start doing repairs for tenants.”

According to Elizabeth Godwin-Jones, a Richmond attorney who represents landlords, the original bill was too vague about what would constitute an emergency condition and how the tenant was allowed to go about getting the work done.

Now that the tenant is required to hire a licensed contractor and provide the necessary documentation, she said there’s little a negligent landlord could do to challenge their tenant in court and force them to pay their rent in full.

 “To me, the landlord already has a bit of a black eye, if it was something really serious and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Godwin-Jones said.

Stanley patroned another renter’s rights bill, one which didn’t advance. The bill would have given tenants the right to use their landlord’s failure to maintain the property as a defense if they were taken to court for failure to pay rent.

Virginia’s eviction rates are among the highest in the country. Princeton University’s 2016 Eviction Lab study showed that five of the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the U.S. are in Virginia, and Godwin-Jones believes the problem is rooted in poverty more than it is in landlord-tenant legislation.

“To me, the biggest thing to help the eviction problem would be to raise the minimum wage and have more affordable housing options, but that’s terribly underfunded, and the funding hasn’t kept up with the increase in the rent,” Godwin-Jones said.

After making it to the House of Delegates, the bill was assigned to a General Laws subcommittee, which recommended advancing it. A committee on Thursday postponed hearing the bill because Stanley was still in the Senate and could not speak to the bill.

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Downtown

Bills advance to expand in-state tuition regardless of citizenship status

The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition.

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The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition.

SB 935, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko and Ghazala Hashmi, would require a student to provide proof of filed taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition. A student also must have attended high school in Virginia for at least two years, been homeschooled in the state or have passed a high school equivalency exam prior to enrolling in a college. The bill reported out of the House appropriations committee Wednesday and heads to the floor for a vote.

Submitting income tax returns would be a challenge for students straight out of high school who have not worked or filed taxes before, according to Jorge Figueredo, executive director of Edu-Futuro, a nonprofit that seeks to empower immigrant youth and their families.

HB 1547, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, applies the same provisions as SB 935, except the requirement to file proof of filed taxes. The bill is currently in the Senate Health and Education committee.

Immigrant rights advocates have openly supported these two bills. Figueredo said he is “thrilled” to see the bill advance.

“This is something that makes a lot of sense. It’s something where we don’t want to have a group of people to get to a point that they cannot reach their highest potential,” Figueredo said.

Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2014 that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students would be eligible for in-state tuition. He said Maryland saw an increase in graduation rates after allowing students without documentation to access in-state tuition rates. Maryland officials believe this led less students to drop out of high school because they saw realistic options for continuing education, according to Herring.

There is uncertainty about the future of the DACA program. A study by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis stated that uncertainty creates a risk for students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities, who fear they could lose DACA status and access to in-state tuition rates. The institute, which studies issues affecting low-to-moderate income residents, recommended that lawmakers could mitigate the potential impact of that loss by expanding in-state tuition access to Virginia residents regardless of immigration status. The institute said that by doing so the state would also provide more affordable access to colleges for residents whose immigration status does not otherwise fall into the categories currently required for in-state tuition.

Figueredo said that allowing these students to apply for in-state tuition would create more opportunities for undocumented students to become professionals, something that would benefit all of Virginia.

High school graduates in Virginia earn about $35,000 on average compared to people with a bachelor’s degree who earn about $65,000 a year, according to The Commonwealth Institute.

“A person that has a higher level of education in comparison to a person that has only a high school diploma, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that are not captured in the form of taxes, so that’s a direct benefit right there,” Figueredo said.

Katherine Amaya is a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. Her family emigrated from El Salvador when she was 8 years old. Amaya said she pays out-of-state tuition rates as an undocumented student, about $6,000 per semester, compared to classmates who pay about $2,000 for in-state tuition per semester.

Amaya said she was on the honor roll throughout high school and her first semester in college. She said she was able to apply for scholarships for undocumented students but it was a competitive process. She was awarded a few scholarships and said she was able to use that money for her first semester of college but is afraid she won’t get as much help in the future.

Amaya said she had many friends in high school that were also having a hard time paying for college or university because they were also undocumented and did not qualify for in-state tuition.

“A lot of them, they couldn’t even afford going to community college, so they just dropped out and started working,” Amaya said. “It’s sad, you know, that they don’t have the money or the help to keep going to school.”

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