Building a Foundation of Awareness
Professor Courtney Anderson Champions Housing Issues to Break Cycle of Poverty
Community can be a matter of life and death.
South Seattle knows this hard fact. Residents there rise each morning in a grinding urban neighborhood with high unemployment and substandard housing. Just one mile distant, over a body of water that might as well be an ocean, lies Mercer Island, one of the 100 wealthiest ZIP codes in the United States.
A baby born today on Mercer Island can expect to live 10 years longer than a baby born in South Seattle.
Life expectancy isn’t the only discrepancy between wealthy communities and poor ones. Low-income areas typically see higher rates of crime, disease, mental illness and drug addiction.
That’s true in Seattle. It’s true in Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore, Miami. It’s true in Atlanta.
In South Atlanta, Thomasville Heights Elementary School and its surrounding neighborhood share a ZIP code with a federal penitentiary. There’s no building boom in this blighted section of one of America’s fastest-growing cities.
In fact, substandard housing across the street from 600-student Thomasville Heights is considered the leading cause of a shocking year-over-year turnover rate in classrooms there.
From one year to the next, 40 percent of the students at Thomasville Heights go away. Some families leave the housing complex after complaining of intolerable conditions — structural damage; dilapidation; infestations of snakes, rodents, insects. Others who can’t find the means to pay rent move on because of eviction notices.
What happens to kids in this unstable circumstance? And their community in the long run? Georgia State Law Assistant Professor Courtney Anderson has done her homework.
“The concentration of housing for low-income families in impoverished neighborhoods adversely affects educational attainment,” she said. “Ultimately, this also impacts the opportunity for poor children to break the cycle of poverty as adults.”
Substandard housing affects more than grades and graduations. People in shoddy dwellings more often suffer respiratory and cardiovascular troubles from smoke and indoor air pollution. They’re frequently exposed to high and low temperatures. Home injuries occur more often — floors or steps give way, roofs collapse, wiring shorts out. Sanitation problems can spread communicable diseases. More frequent diagnoses of allergies, asthma and mold-borne ailments add to woes.
Unraveling the knotted problems of housing, education and health takes a champion, someone willing to build awareness about problems in communities that often have no voice.
Anderson has made it her cause.
Home is where the health is
Anderson first grasped the link between housing and community health issues when she served as a clinical fellow at Georgetown University Law Center in 2012.
“We worked very closely with low-income tenant organizations who were attempting to purchase their buildings,” she said. “The need for health services, education and other social services was always prevalent.”
Anderson quickly realized that the needs of these clients stretched far beyond memos on legal letterhead or simple words of legal advice. That revelation shaped her teaching and research.
“We were our clients’ only advocates,” she said. “They told us how hard it was for them to access social services and education because of where they lived. We realized how many ancillary issues stemmed from the disparities in their communities … and we were the only ones who could help.”
Connecting the community dots, Anderson began to actively research housing instability in low-income neighborhoods.
“I work with sociologists, attorneys, educators and bankers to create a map of neighborhood stressors near schools with high turnover rates,” she said. “Once we have that, we can better understand how educational attainment is disrupted by evictions, building code violations and mobility.”
Anderson has published several notable papers exploring how events or conditions that touch any part of housing, education or health in underserved neighborhoods have a ripple effect in the other areas. Her titles describe the work: “The Disparate Impact of Shuttered Schools” in the Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law in 2015; “Affirmative Action for Affordable Housing” in Howard Law Journal in 2016; “You Cannot Afford to Live Here” in Fordham Urban Law Journal this year.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Anderson ventures out from the ivory tower of academia to hit the streets … and she rides along with a posse.
Each year, she loads her Law and Health Equity class onto a bus and tools them up Peachtree Road and through ritzy Buckhead. The students admire Buckhead’s fine houses and jeweled lawns and glittering automobiles. Then, in jarring contrast, the student bus veers southward into grindingly poor Atlanta neighborhoods. The houses there have shuttered windows and trash-strewn lawns and abandoned cars.
“It really opens the students’ eyes to a part of Atlanta they have never seen, despite the fact that it is five minutes away from the law school,” Anderson said. “We go from wealthy neighborhoods in North Atlanta to abject poverty that is not far from where they live and learn. The purpose is to give our law students context for how segregated cities can be and how man-made factors influence and cause this segregation.”
Newly enlightened, Anderson’s students then are urged to bring their budding legal skills to bear in service to the challenged communities they’ve seen. Like many Georgia State Law students, a large number of these future lawyers have Atlanta roots or close community ties. It’s not uncommon for them to suddenly develop a passion for community efforts driven by various nonprofits.
“The Atlanta Volunteers Lawyer Foundation, SisterLove and New Georgia Project have been great at identifying and assisting with the variety of issues that affect low-income populations,” Anderson said. “Our students offer hands-on, real-world help.”
Genevieve Razick (J.D. ’16) took Anderson’s classes in Property Law, Law & Health Equity and Law & Social Welfare. Razick now practices as an associate attorney at Arnall Golden Gregory, where she focuses on regulatory and transactional work for health care clients. “Professor Anderson is truly passionate about bringing topics covered in class to life for her students so they aren’t just reading another chapter in a textbook,” Razick said.
“Her students are challenged to understand, form an opinion and make an impact to curb health disparities … and her work is shedding light on some of the health and housing disparities in Georgia.”
During her semester in Anderson’s Law & Health Equity class, Razick supported SisterLove Inc., an organization serving to eradicate the disproportionate impact of HIV and sexual oppression on women in the United States.
“My Georgia State team helped SisterLove conduct legal research on the frameworks surrounding sexual reproductive education in schools in Georgia,” Razick said. “We looked at how access to sexual reproductive education could potentially impact the prevalence of HIV in a community.”
Anderson’s students lend their legal expertise to other allies too. Some support the work of Neighborhood Planning Units, citizen advisory councils that research and develop zoning, land use and other planning recommendations designed to address health disparities and inequalities. Their recommendations go directly to Atlanta’s mayor and city council.
Other students have pitched in with the Atlanta Youth Count and Needs Assessment, a comprehensive survey of youth homelessness in the city. One of Anderson’s students worked with Westside Atlanta Land Trust. That pairing resulted in a program proposal to train ex-criminal offenders in construction trades that can help them land jobs renovating blighted homes in a depressed area at Vine City/English Avenue. Breakthrough thinking is badly needed in that area.
“This neighborhood,” Anderson said, “has more vacant homes and ex-offenders than any other ZIP code in Georgia.”
Calling all leaders
Paul Bolster (J.D. ’86) feels that efforts to cut through a Gordian knot of problems to find solutions in housing, health and education policy depend on leadership … the path-breaking research and advocacy like Anderson’s, but also political and legal leadership.
“I believe it takes legislative or executive department leadership to give a focus to citizen advocacy,” Bolster said. “For any public policy change,” he emphasized, “there needs to be a legislative leader to make decisions and create partnerships that will lead to legislation. The courts can provide a context for the legislation and often political cover for taking actions that may not be popular or may get lost in the din of public discussion. Leadership can make an issue a priority for research, public debate and ultimately legislative action.”
Bolster does his part. He founded and serves as principle consultant for Support Housing LLC, an organization assisting communities with plans to end homelessness. He co-develops supportive housing with service providers and organizes advocacy efforts focused on state and local policy issues. He founded the Georgia Supportive Housing Association, where he is its former executive director.
Anderson’s work has earned Bolster’s attention. “Her research is important,” he said. “Connecting housing to health and education is critical to public investment in the housing.”
Anderson’s leadership in housing and health policy could possibly lead to big changes at Thomasville Heights Elementary School. In the past two years, students in her Property Law classes worked with Purpose Built Schools to explore the underlying causes of churn problems at the educational institution. Students pulled eviction records and documentation on housing conditions. They cross-referenced demographics to identify and map the issues that impact Thomasville students’ ability to attend school.
Now, late this fall, Purpose Built Schools will hold a meeting to evaluate student recommendations based on that research — and possibly adopt those ideas in coming years. Quality housing and reduced student turnover in the neighborhood that Thomasville Heights’ student body calls home could arrest the cycle of poverty in the area. In other words, two components of a true community — a stable, livable home and a classroom where familiar teachers and classmates show up reliably and faithfully — could potentially anchor the area and give it a chance at normal development.
A chance to share in the American Dream
A true sense of community remains a dream deferred, Anderson feels, without secure, protective, sheltering places to live, schools to spark ideas and health to support hope.
“We are far from the goal,” Anderson said. “But awareness that there are these issues has definitely improved, and there has been more of an interdisciplinary approach to addressing them. Housing agencies are now opining on education policies and vice versa.
“Improving health equity will come with improving race relations and improvements in economic inequality,” she added. “I think the focus right now still needs to be on awareness and education, with local groups taking the lead on testing possible solutions that can be replicated so that there can be more buy-in when they are proven effective.”