Reflection: Housing clinical helps needy, builds real skills for aspiring lawyers

BY KAREN TENENBAUM

Looking back at my experience at HLS, the clinical work I did in the housing unit at the Legal Services Center was the best experience I had as a law student. As you finalize your schedule for the fall semester, I strongly encourage you to consider the clinical opportunities at the LSC.

Recently I had the chance to speak with several students who are currently in the housing and foreclosure program, including Ben Sweet and Ishan Bhabha, both 3Ls, and Ryan Park, a 2L. These students have been working to help tenants who have been caught in the gray area between the foreclosure crisis and traditional landlord/tenant law.Tenants living in foreclosed rental properties can be taken advantage of both by landlords and the banks who repossess the buildings. On one side, foreclosed landlords are sometimes able to abuse tenants by convincing them that they still own the property and by collecting rent that should be going to the bank. Landlords facing foreclosure are also far less likely to do even basic repairs to the property. After foreclosure, banks are usually eager to clear the property of tenants as soon as possible – even model tenants – in order to sell quickly. For tenants who are used to a traditional landlord, the entire process can be a mystery.

Bhabha handled one such case recently at the Attorney-of-the-Day table at the Boston Housing Court. A tenant who had received notice of her home’s foreclosure had – unrepresented – signed a paltry “cash for keys” agreement (in which foreclosing banks offer tenants money to leave within a very short period of time). Tenants often don’t know that when a bank becomes the owner of a building, leases remain in effect and the bank has all the responsibilities of a private landlord. Tenants don’t have to leave just to satisfy the bank’s demands. The tenant whom Bhabha assisted had been offered only $3,000 to give up all her legal rights and leave in the immediate future. By helping the tenant understand her rights and communicating with the bank about its responsibilities, Bhabha raised the offer substantially. Said Bhabha, “The banks have a very much one-size-fits all approach.” He explained that the banks frequently hire attorneys who know little, if anything, about Mass. landlord-tenant law.

Last week, Park met a tenant at the Attorney-of-the-Day table who had been offered a bad cash-for-keys deal by a foreclosing bank. The tenants were a veteran and her grown daughter, who works in an office. The bank had offered the family $500 to vacate by the end of the month. As Park and the mother began to speak, the bank’s attorney noticed what was going on and tried to intervene by physically blocking Park from speaking to the tenant. Said Park, “it wasn’t threatening or anything, just a hand in the face.” After some argument, the attorney turned to Park and called him an “asshole.” As Park remembered, “I thought that was interesting because it was just in response to me quoting a statute.” Park, the bank’s attorney, and the tenants met in mediation to try to resolve the case, but the parties were unable to reach a settlement. Park accepted the case for full representation, and the judge granted Park’s request to file a late answer and a motion to dismiss.

Sweet inherited a similar case from a previous student at LSC, in which the bank had foreclosed and wanted the tenants out. The tenants had been withholding rent in an escrow account because of bad conditions in the apartment that hadn’t been fixed, either by the former landlord or the bank. The bank proposed a variation of cash-for-keys, offering to waive all the back rent if the tenants moved out promptly. The tenants, however, didn’t want to move – certainly not as quickly as the bank insisted – and negotiations stalled. Unbeknownst to Sweet, LSC was for some reason not listed as attorney-of-record with the court. Sweet received notice of the trial just one week in advance and immediately sprung into action. He petitioned the court for a postponement, just days before the trial date, but was denied.

On the last day before trial, Sweet met with the bank’s lawyer while at court to file some pre-trial motions. The meeting resulted in a settlement allowing the tenants to keep all the withheld rent in escrow (plus a little extra money) and have an indefinite amount of time to move out. Pursuant to the settlement, the bank cannot bring eviction proceedings for at least six months, after which an eviction can only be for “good cause.”

“These days the only things that go to trial are the really good cases and the really bad cases. Everything in the middle settles, because nobody wants to do a trial,” said Sweet. His clients are looking for a new place to live, but are now able to do so without the awful pressure of an eviction date. Sweet noted that the banks frequently mislead the tenants about how much time they have to move out, especially given the considerable substantive and procedural rights enjoyed by tenants in Massacshuetts. A large part of his role is to “try to get the banks to realize that they can’t just kick these people out.”

With plenty of uncertainty about jobs after graduation, you may be worried about fitting clinicals into your HLS experience. While it may seem that Corporate Taxation or Trusts and Estates is the best investment in your future as a lawyer, almost nothing is more impressive to a potential employer (whether a firm or non-profit) than already having done a trial, taken a deposition, or drafted a contract or settlement agreement. Ask anyone who took a clinical at HLS: the best way to learn to be a lawyer is to be one.

Karen Tenenbaum ’07 works at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley in New York

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