Woods plans to develop a program aimed at helping people evicted from homes they believed they had purchased, but had actually leased using a form of seller financing known as a land contract or contract of deed. Because these contracts function as long-term leases, the buyer does not actually own any portion of the home until the contract—often issued for a term of 30 years—is paid in full. “After the housing crisis, unscrupulous investment firms bought houses from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and then leased them to people who thought they were buying a house,” Woods said. “These firms often misrepresent land contracts as mortgages, but if the home’s occupants are late on a single payment, their house immediately reverts to the company holding the contract, and the occupants can be evicted within as few as 15 days.”
To compound the problem, Woods said, many houses are in poor repair when they are leased to prospective homeowners. “Some occupants make substantial investments to replace roofs and air-handling systems or repair plumbing and electrical systems because they believe the own the house. They lose that investment if the house reverts to the leasing firm,” he said. “People have made what they thought were house payments for years, only to have their house revert to the original owner when they are late on a payment,” he explained.
“Darrius has played a leadership role in Vanderbilt’s public interest community for the past several years,” said Assistant Dean for Public Interest Spring Miller. “He is deeply committed to using his law degree to advance racial and social justice, and I am thrilled that he will have the chance to do so through his EJW fellowship with Atlanta Legal Aid. Competition for these fellowships is fierce, but Darrius and Atlanta Legal Aid Home Defense Program put together an extremely strong project. “
Woods studied law specifically to focus on legal barriers to affordable housing. He first became aware of the need for affordable housing in many American cities during a two-year stint with Teach for America before law school. As a kindergarten teacher in an Atlanta elementary school, he made a practice of visiting the homes of his students who exhibited behavioral problems to understand the challenges they faced. “I got to this kid’s apartment, and every building in his complex was burned down but his,” he recalled. “I could see drug dealers and prostitutes from his door. He had to see this every day. When I brought him home, he asked if he could stay with me.”
Woods worked for the nonprofit Bronx Defenders in New York, during summer 2015, gaining experience in witness preparation, drafting motions, client interviewing, and trial preparation. As a 2L active in Law Students for Social Justice, he conceived of, organized and led a pro bono spring break trip to New Orleans. He worked with student organizations and faculty affiliated with the George Barrett Social Justice Program to secure funding to cover transportation and lodging costs for 16 students, who spent a week volunteering with the nonprofit Orleans Public Defenders, the New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.
As a legal intern in the Washington, D.C., offices of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization during summer 2016, he worked on voter protection and voting rights, education and the “overcriminalization of youth,” with stipend support from the George Barrett Social Justice Program.
Woods received the Damali A. Booker Award, presented to the graduate with a keen dedication to legal activism and a demonstrated commitment to confronting social issues, at the law school’s Commencement ceremony May 12. He is a native of Riverdale, Georgia.