Harvard Legal Aid Bureau Fights for Tenant Rights

BY DAN EDMONDS

The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau has recently embraced a new approach in its ongoing mission to ameliorate the dual problems of lack of affordability and dilapidated living conditions facing low-income tenants in certain Boston neighborhoods. While still representing a number of individual clients facing eviction, Bureau students have now begun using collective bargaining agreements between tenant associations and their landlords and meetings with community organizers and local government officials in efforts to set the stage for improved tenant-landlord relations in local low-income communities.

Beginning last semester, students in the Bureau, a two-year student-run clinical program, have been working with the Jamaica Plain-based community organization City Life/Vida Urbana and several tenants’ associations based in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury. Students have responded to unreasonable rent increases in these areas by forcing landlords to bargain collectively with tenants.

On this front, Bureau students have been successful in negotiating two agreements on a collective basis to protect groups of tenants from eviction and improve housing conditions. In November, Bureau member and Outreach Director Julie Park ’07 concluded an agreement on behalf of eight teenage mothers who were being evicted from the Aswalos House, a transitional housing program run by the YWCA in Dorchester. The program was discontinued and the house scheduled to be closed due to funding cuts, but Park negotiated an agreement guaranteeing new apartments for the young mothers and continuation of the career and life skills counseling they had been receiving.

In early December, student attorneys Alison MacManus ’08 and Jonathon Bashford ’07 negotiated a settlement on behalf of a tenant association in Roxbury. The tenants, who had been living for years in conditions that Bureau Faculty Director David Grossman ’88 describes as “squalid,” had been unable to compel their landlord to undertake building repairs required by the Massachusetts housing code.

Under the new settlement and a court order, the landlord must provide the tenants with temporary housing while their units undergo renovation. MacManus, speaking of her experiences in this case, was grateful for the opportunity “to use the Legal Aid Bureau’s resources to apply the protections of the law and to give, through the efforts of the students, a group of tenants who had been waiting for 10 years…the chance of having all the conditions they have been living with finally improved.”

Most recently, the Bureau negotiated a settlement on behalf of a tenant association in Roxbury whose members were facing unaffordable rent increases imposed by their landlord. Student attorneys Kimberly Harbin ’07 and Lara Kislinger ’07 used a multi-faceted approach to achieve a collective bargaining agreement with the landlord that provides for limited rent increases and significantly below-market rents over the next five years. Tenant organizers at City Life/Vida Urbana were instrumental in aligning the tenants’ interests, while mediators at Boston’s City Hall encouraged the Boston Housing Authority to pledge Section 8 subsidies to the development-a crucial element of the deal.

In addition to these successful settlements, Bureau members have been busy lobbying city and state governments to provide legal protections for tenants and to increase the resources available for their defense. Since September, Grossman and Bureau member Goutam Jois ’07 have worked to promote legislation that would require collective bargaining between commercial landlords and tenants’ associations. As part of their campaign, Jois and Grossman have testified before the Housing Committee of the Boston City Council, coordinated strategies with community groups such as City Life/Vida Urbana to mobilize tenant associations and seek political allies on the City Council, and drafted the original version of a bill that City Councilor Sam Yoon introduced on November 29, 2006. That bill will likely come to a final vote in February.

If it passes, the bill will be the first of its kind in the nation, and as such, will not only improve the lives of Boston residents but will also provide a model for similar legislation elsewhere. Jois remarked, “The collective bargaining project has been particularly interesting because it requires a lot of creative thinking. For example, a course of action that is legally sound might create bad press for Councilors who are our allies. Conversely, we might lose a particular fight in the courts, but exert enough pressure on the commercial landlords so as to ultimately achieve our goals.”

While Jois has been working to create a new legal framework for low-income tenants’ rights, Park has contributed to efforts to increase the resources available to low-income families facing eviction and homelessness. On December 7, Grossman and Park, along with several Bureau clients, testified at a hearing held by the Patrick-Murray Housing Working Group, sponsored by the governor’s office.

Park spoke about the need for greater funding for legal services that protect low-income tenants from eviction and other services that prevent homelessness, while several Bureau clients testified about the need for these services in the Boston area. Grossman addressed the importance of legal mechanisms to protect tenants from gentrification-driven displacement, citing the collective bargaining legislation before the Boston City Council.

The Bureau’s presence at the Patrick-Murray Working Group hearing held particular significance because newly inaugurated Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ’82 served as President of the Legal Aid Bureau while he was a student at HLS. Two weeks ago, a group of Bureau students and staff a group of students celebrated Patrick’s achievement by attending his inaugural ball.

Park noted the relevance of the Bureau’s legislative lobbying to everyday Bureau activities, finding it “really encouraging to know that there are other groups out there advocating and lobbying to solve the problems that we often find so overwhelming in our clinical work at the Legal Aid Bureau.” On a similar note, Grossman highlighted how interconnected the Bureau’s various projects are, such that representing individual tenants in their eviction cases influences the Bureau’s collaboration with tenant associations, while working with tenant associations informs the Bureau’s legislative projects.

Another Bureau member and housing concentrator, Mira Edmonds ’07, noted, “I can’t overemphasize how exciting it is to be part of an organization that works holistically in this way, helping individual clients while also chipping away at the structural problems.” Over the next couple of months, the Bureau will be holding informational meetings for 1Ls interested in joining its practice in the fall.

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