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New coalition calls on lawmakers to support equal LGBTQ rights

Advocacy group Equality Virginia recently formed the Virginia Values Coalition, which is calling on state lawmakers to establish legal protections for the LGBTQ community from employment and housing to public spaces like stores or restaurants. “We hope to arrive at the General Assembly with thousands of people behind us,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia. 

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By Aliviah Jones

Bianca Rey, chair of Capital Trans Pride, understands firsthand the struggle to live with equal protections. The constant worries of being fired from a job or treated differently are thoughts individuals in the LGBTQ community deal with on a regular basis, Rey said. “Is today going to be the day where somebody is going to approach me and tell me, you can’t come to this coffee shop anymore and buy coffee, because you’re trans, or gay, or you’re bi?”

Rey, a Virginia resident, said she feels fortunate to live near the D.C metro area where resources are easily accessible for the LGBTQ community. Still, Virginia is one of 30 states in the country without specific laws to protect LGBTQ residents.

“We’re professionals, we’re teachers, we’re veterans, you know, we work in healthcare, we’re physicians,” Rey said. But, she said, the LGBTQ community worries about access in a way the straight community doesn’t.

“I think, as a state, our top priority is to legalize a policy where LGBTQ Virginians are free to work and not be discriminated for being who they are,” she said.

That is why advocacy group Equality Virginia recently formed the Virginia Values Coalition, which is calling on state lawmakers to establish legal protections for the LGBTQ community from employment and housing to public spaces like stores or restaurants.

“We hope to arrive at the General Assembly with thousands of people behind us,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia.

Last February, the coalition pushed for several bills to end discrimination in work and housing that did not make it past Republican-led House sub-committees:

  • Senate Bill 998 and House Bill 2067: Both aimed to prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. SB 998 passed the Senate but not the House. HB 2067 died in committee.

  • SB 1109 and HB 2677 both aimed to make discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity an unlawful discriminatory housing practice. SB 1109 passed the Senate but not the House. HB 2677 died in committee.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, supported legislation to protect Virginia’s LGBTQ community. McClellan said she plans to reintroduce the housing bill in the upcoming General Assembly session.
“I plan to reintroduce my housing discrimination bill in 2020 and if Sen. [Adam] Ebbin reintroduces his, I will once again be a co-patron,” she said. “Virginia’s LGBTQ citizens have the right to fair housing and fair employment, and if Democrats have the majority, we will finally be able to push the needle forward on many of these protections.”
Over 20 other bills supported by Equality Virginia failed to advance in the 2019 General Assembly session.
Parrish said last year was his 10th session lobbying for a housing bill and the first time the General Assembly had not allowed the coalition’s priority bills to be voted on before the House.
“We had the votes necessary both in the committee and on the floor for the housing bill, and they would not let it come up for votes,” he said.
Republicans hold a slim majority in the state legislature — 51-49 in the House and 21-29 in the Senate. Advocates for a number of causes believe that flipping control of the General Assembly could impact the policies and legislation being passed.
Right now, the Virginia Values Coalition field team is signing up people who support LGBTQ non-discrimination protections. Later in the year, it will host events highlighting individuals and organizations who join the coalition.
The coalition also will host panels across the state to educate people on the challenges transgender people face and how Virginians can support the community.
Equality Virginia also has two programs to get business owners and elected officials to demonstrate their support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination legislation:

  • Equality Means Business, which allows any small business owner to pledge online that their establishment does not discriminate against employees, customers and clients based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

  • Local Leaders for Fairness, which enables elected officials to state their support of the General Assembly passing nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community related to employment, housing and public spaces.

Currently, 24 districts and 46 elected Virginia officials have signed the online statement.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on three employment discrimination cases. Arguments in the cases asked if Title VII protections extend to gay, lesbian and transgender employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination on the “basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” The case could be significant because fewer than half of the nation’s 50 states have laws in place that prohibit discrimination based on gender and sexual identities, according to the Human Right’s Campaign.

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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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Gird Your Loins it’s Time to Shiver in the River

The event isn’t limited to jumping in the James, there’s a clean-up, a 5K, music, beer, music and more.

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The 6th Annual Shiver in the River 5k is hitting the James River this weekend, Saturday, February 29th at Tredegar. You can clean up, walk/run, or jump in the James River — or do all three. There is a lot going on and you can pick and choose what you’d like to do. All these events are to benefit Keep Virginia Beautiful.

It kicks off, picks off?, at 10:00 a.m. with a Community Cleanup along the banks of the James River.

A couple of hours later at noon the 5k walk/run runs a loop that starts and ends at Historic Tredegar, taking in the beauty of the James River.

The main event dips in at 1:30, The James River Leap. This fundraising Leap will take place along the chilly banks of the James near Historic Tredegar.  A minimum of $75 must be raised to participate in the Leap and to receive a commemorative long-sleeve T-shirt.  Must be 13 years or older to participate in the Leap.

Image: Dave Parrish

Don’t feel like getting wet? Well, join your fellow sane folks at the Winter Festival from 11 AM to 4 PM for a free event that offers music, beverages, food, heated tents, and, more.

Register Here

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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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