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Written by Celine Janelle

Dec 19

2012

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, FOR BETTER OR WORSE

Celine Janelle, Staff Attorney

Delicious smells wafting from the oven. The hustle bustle of cooking in the kitchen. Family and friends gathered around the table. The warmth of being inside on a cold winter night. These are images we commonly evoke during the holiday season, no matter what our religious tradition. And interestingly, many of these images are tied to our living space.

This season, I reflect on how some of Legal Aid’s housing clients are celebrating the holidays – and how unresolved landlord-tenant matters can throw a wrench into their plans.

Take for example Mr. Meza (all names have been changed). After being separated from his mother for 20 years, he’s finally going to get to see her for the holidays. She’s coming from overseas so she’ll need a place to stay. Mr. Meza desperately wants to host his mom in his apartment, but the bedbug situation is so bad that it just won’t be possible. He feels ashamed that he can’t provide his mother with clean and comfortable accommodations.

Mrs. Wright loves to bake, especially around the holidays. But lately, her oven has been acting up. To bake something all the way through, Ms. Wright has to get on her hands and knees at least five or six times to re-light the pilot with a match. She asked her landlord to fix the problem, but he hasn’t taken any action. Given this and other housing conditions in her apartment, Ms. Wright has accepted that she won’t be spending the holidays in her own home.

Ms. Lamont is crestfallen that she doesn’t have any money to buy her son Christmas gifts. She had originally set aside the money, but then her subsidy program miscalculated her rent, and Ms. Lamont was forced to spend her reserves on an inflated rent arrearage. Ms. Lamont is currently litigating her case in court, and hopes that she can recoup her lost Christmas money before the holidays.

Ms. Chase is crossing her fingers that she doesn’t get evicted in the next few weeks. Although she promised her landlord that she and her family would move out in early December, Ms. Chase couldn’t find anywhere else to go on her fixed income. She’s hoping to get a spot in the shelter before the Marshals come to her door.

These stories speak to the daily challenges that our client population faces, made only more poignant during the holiday season when one would hope for something better. Of course, not everyone is such dire straits. And people find a way to make the best of things. But for all those facing housing hardships this holiday season, may the New Year bring you comfort, stability, and justice.

May 08

2012

Psychology of the Home

Celine Janelle, Staff Attorney

Picture yourself in your home. Take a look around. What do you see? How do you feel? Do you feel comfortable, calm, in control? Is your home a refuge? Do you feel secure? Or do you feel tense? Are you uncomfortable, unmotivated, or fearful? When you look around, do you become uneasy or stressed?

In recent years, public health studies have started to document what we already know intuitively – that our surroundings affect us. Not just physically but also mentally. Poor apartment conditions, neighborhood dynamics, and lack of affordable housing options can combine to create a myriad of external stressors. And for low-income tenants with few other options, these stressors can take a profound psychological toll.

As a member of the housing team, I often hear tenants describe the negative effects that poor housing conditions have on their emotional well being. One client said he felt anxious sitting on his couch because roaches would crawl over his arm. Another man described lying awake for hours waiting for bedbugs to bite. A father expressed concern that his two-year-old would stick her finger into an uncovered outlet. Another parent said her kids were scared to go to the bathroom at night because of mice. One woman came close to tears when she described the despair and frustration she felt every time her landlord ignored her pleas for repairs.

At the other end of the spectrum, I also get to hear how safe and healthy homes can be transformative for individuals. One of the most powerful moments I have had at Legal Aid was hearing a tenant talk about the new apartment she obtained with her voucher. “When I walk through my front door, and I see the fresh paint, new carpets, and ceiling trim,” she said, “it makes me feel like a queen. I feel like I can turn a new page in life and be a better person.” She described how leaving her old apartment, which was filled with mice, roaches and other housing code violations, made her feel energized and liberated. Her new surroundings gave her motivation to start working towards her goals – leaving her abusive boyfriend, finding a job, and spending more time with her family.

This woman’s newfound resolve epitomizes the critical role that housing conditions play on our emotional health. It is also a reminder of why we must be vigilant in enforcing the housing code, and why we must continue to advocate for safe, affordable, and healthy housing for low-income families.