Addressing Racial Inequities Through Medical-Legal Partnerships
In the U.S., 25% of all renters are severely rent-burdened. In Florida, that percentage is 21%. But when we look at the data by census tract in Pinellas County, there are several communities—mostly comprised of people of color—that are up to 91.5% severely rent-burdened. People of color in these communities disproportionately spend at least 30% of their income on rent and most spend over 50%. Upscale development, rent spikes, and stagnant wages continue to cause barriers for equitable growth in Pinellas County.
Beyond shelter, housing problems disproportionately affect people of color when it comes to their ability to pay for basic expenses, save for emergencies, and make long-term investments in the community. When a family experiences an eviction, the repercussions can be generational and often reverberate into other areas of life. Displacement from a stable home disrupts the social fabric of a community and can disconnect people from social, educational, and occupational resources. And when families can stay in their home, build social networks, and invest in their neighborhood, the community can thrive.
Home ownership is also one of the major ways to build wealth across generations, but home ownership rates for Black (35%) and Latinx (41%) households in Pinellas are well below the county average (64%). Housing problems disproportionately negatively affect people of color in multifaceted ways. For that reason, solutions that are holistic and multifaceted themselves are essential steps towards achieving race equity.
Medical Legal Partnership (MLP) programs intersect medical and legal interventions to address the root causes of patients’ problems—many of which perpetuate racial inequities and health inequities. Doctors and lawyers are cross trained to mobilize medical and legal resources to address problems more effectively like housing, eviction, and civil justice that can compromise health. A patient’s asthma might be because of their home’s mold and pest infestation. A patient’s declining health might be because of eviction notices or income instability. Any legal issue can be intimating and act as a stressor triggering new and existing medical issues and inequities.
Through MLPs, doctors treat patients’ problems not just as medical in nature but as potential legal issues that might negatively affect their health now or in the future. In turn, lawyers are provided with medical evidence and guidance to substantiate legal claims and seek appropriate remedies for conditions at odds with both legal rights and health.
A 2016 study by Columbia University found that MLP programs provided a comprehensive approach that effectively addressed widespread health disparities rooted in problematic housing. Participants described having a doctor-lawyer team as giving them an “extra oomph” and that it “kind [of] gives you the edge up on what to look for and how to go about it.” In most cases, participants were able to conveniently access lawyers through their healthcare providers and subsequently received legal services that prevented eviction, appealed increases in rent, and secured housing subsidies. 83% of the participants who benefited from the MLP program were people of color. The study noted that MLPs enabled a “shift in legal consciousness for those at the intersection of inequality—race, gender, and socioeconomic status” in which people learned, legitimized, and leveraged the law. MLPs thus have the potential to be more than a short-term, temporary solution to race inequities and health inequities, especially those related to housing.
Lisa Brody—an attorney at Bay Area Legal—has been advocating for and implementing MLPs for the past 10 years. She iterated that MLPs’ holistic approaches are essential to enable equitable outcomes for marginalized populations and people of color. Brody stated, “the trickle-down effect of families losing housing is so detrimental that we want to do anything we can to not allow that to happen.” Brody also emphasized the critical role of full commitments from all partners in a MLP saying that everyone who encounters the patient—doctors, nurses, receptionists—must be just as motivated as the legal partner.
Addressing housing problems through MLPs not only improves population health and access to their legal options but achieves outcomes towards health equity—especially race equity. As COVID-19 exacerbates Florida’s housing crisis and people of color are disproportionately affected, MLPs provide a unique opportunity to address housing problems through a social determinants of health framework. Root causes of racial and health inequity can be effectively addressed and lead to lasting, long-term change.
Community Health Centers of Pinellas, Inc.
- If you are an established patient with housing problems and other Civil-Legal needs, the Medical Legal Partnership Program at Community Health Centers of Pinellas, Inc. can assist you for free in a familiar and accessible setting. To schedule an appointment, call 727-824-8181.
Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program
- If you are struggling to pay rent, the Pinellas Eviction Diversion Program offers several free legal services to tenants impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and their landlords. This program provides repayment of overdue rent, free legal help, virtual mediation, and help locating a new place to live if unable to stay in your current residence. To apply for help, please call (727) 582-7475.
Homeless Leadership Alliance
- If you need access to affordable housing, food, clothing, childcare, and/or legal assistance, the Homeless Leadership Alliance provides a Pinellas County Homeless Resource Guide with organizations that can help and their contact information.
Written by: Mala Coomar, Research Analyst Intern at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg