Harvard Law School’s ‘outstanding’ housing rights advocacy work honored by Boston Bar Association

LSC, HLAB, GBLS and City Life/Vida Urbana receive John G. Brooks Legal Services Award

In September, two Harvard Law School clinics and their community partner organizations were recognized by the Boston Bar Association (BBA) for their collaborative efforts to fight housing displacement in greater Boston.

WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and City Life/Vida Urbana, received the BBA’s John G. Brooks Legal Services Award for a “creative, combined strategy of community organizing and legal defense to advocate with and for tenants and homeowners across the city.”  The award, presented annually by the BBA, recognizes “professional legal services attorneys for their outstanding work on behalf of indigent clients in greater Boston.” This was the first time since its establishment that the award was received by a collective of four groups.

“These four organizations represent the very best in collaboration and commitment to finding solutions for Boston’s housing crisis,” said incoming BBA President Christine Netski, managing partner at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen. “Their innovative partnership is an excellent model for others looking to bring lawyers and community organizers together to create positive change.”

The cost of housing in greater Boston has increased significantly over the past 10 years. As more and more properties are becoming increasingly expensive, middle- and low-income individuals and families have fewer options to secure housing.

Eloise Lawrence accepts the John G. Brooks Legal Services Award on behalf of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

Eloise Lawrence, a community lawyering clinical instructor and lecturer on law at HLAB, provided insight into how the evolution of the Boston Housing crisis makes it a persistent legal issue, noting how widespread gentrification and foreclosure in the greater Boston area continues to displace community members.

“The real crisis in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis was when a lot of speculators and investors came into communities that had been devastated. They took advantage of the fact that the prices of the homes had decreased dramatically and they started buying them up, which set off yet another speculative frenzy,” she said.

Maureen McDonagh, LSC managing attorney and lecturer on law at the Housing Law Clinic, also elaborated on why this issue is more relevant than ever to the legal community.

“Over the years we’ve seen cuts to legal services. That means there are even fewer attorneys representing folks in housing courts.” said McDonagh. “For unrepresented people, finding representation is virtually impossible. To find an apartment that is affordable, safe, clean is near impossible. People who are being evicted are finding themselves more and more homeless and this includes families. That’s why I think the BBA has concentrated more on [this issue].”

Lisa Owens accepts the John G. Brooks Legal Services Award on behalf of City Life/Vida Urbana

Lawrence noted that the collaborative nature between the four organizations developed in part through the work of the late David Grossman, a clinical professor who worked at LSC before becoming the faculty director at HLAB. Grossman brought students from LSC and HLAB into the anti-foreclosure movement that GBLS and City Life/Vida Urbana were already participating in. Since then, the partnership between all four organizations has expanded and grown. A hallmark of the partnership between these four organizations, the “Sword and Shield” method relies on the concerted and joint effort of local and legal communities; and focuses on empowering and encouraging individuals to stand up for their rights.

“The Shield is legal defense and the Sword is public protest and public pressure.” explained Steve Meacham, Organizing Coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana. “There are procedures of the law that we can take advantage of and … legal proceedings allow the public pressure to then really work.”

City Life/Vida Urbana, whose primary mission is fighting against forced displacement, represents the “sword” through work such as organizing tenant associations and doing eviction blockades. HLS students and attorneys from LSC and GBLS complete the “shield” of the Sword and Shield method by providing legal services and advice. This can range from partial to full representation in court, with the City Life/Vida Urbana meetings in both Jamaica Plain and East Boston providing a space in which law students and attorneys can meet with individuals or client unions looking for legal aid. Additionally, GBLS, LSC, and HLAB participate in the “Lawyer for the Day” program, in conjunction with the BBA and Volunteer Lawyers Project.

“We go to housing court to help people who are being evicted that day, who don’t have a lawyer. We pick up cases right there.” said McDonagh on the program, which has assisted more than 18,000 individuals since 1999.

Outside of the direct services that the four organizations provide, they also convene for monthly Sword and Shield meetings that provide a space for lawyers and organizers to discuss and reflect on issues regarding partnership and individual work. Lawrence explained how these meetings are a good opportunity for organizers and lawyers to connect beyond shared clients.

“I think there’s huge synergy that happens when organizers and lawyers work together. I view it as part of my job to teach law students, especially those that have never worked with organizers before, to understand where the role of lawyer and organizer overlap and where they are distinct. I think that [to be] a good lawyer or an organizer, you need to be an empathetic human, you need to listen and learn. It sounds simple but it often gets overlooked in legal education.” she said.

Additionally, Meacham emphasized the strengths of community lawyering in a movement like the anti-foreclosure movement, where it is important to empower the collective of those in need of help.

“It’s been a privilege to work with all of them.” Meacham said, “In addition to being on the right side of cases about tenants, they are very skilled community lawyers, which is why they’re here taking short consultations. They understand that they’re representing collectively the movement … in terms of their practice outside of the client-attorney relationship, they’re practicing community lawyering so they’re looking at cases that will help a movement.” he said.

McDonagh also emphasized the nature of the collaboration between the four organizations and their relationship with the greater Boston community. “We are honored to be recognized for our efforts but the people who are the real heroes are the ordinary individuals standing up for their rights.” she said.

GBLS Executive Director Jacquelynne J. Bowman says receiving the Brooks Legal Services Award is a wonderful recognition of what impactful, collaborative advocacy can really look like.

BBA President Christine M. Netski (Sugarman Rogers) presents the 2019 John G. Brooks Legal Services Award to Lisa Owens on behalf of City Life/Vida Urbana, Zoe Cronin on behalf of Greater Boston Legal Services, and Maureen E. McDonagh on behalf of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School

“Greater Boston Legal Services is greatly honored to have been chosen by the Boston Bar Association as a co-recipient of the 2019 John G. Brooks Legal Services Award”, she said.  “This is a testament to the impactful advocacy efforts of our Housing Unit advocates and partners at the Harvard Legal Assistance Bureau, WilmerHale Legal Services Center, and City Life/Vida Urbana to help low-income families avoid or delay their displacement from increasingly unaffordable neighborhoods.”

Lawrence echoed this sentiment, noting the implications for how the legal community might best approach large-scale socio-economic issues in the future.

“It’s a recognition … that effective advocacy happens when people work together, especially when lawyers and non-lawyers work together.” Lawrence said. “When you’re dealing with complex problems like lack of affordable housing and the displacement of people from their homes, lawyers are never going to do this alone. The recognition from the legal community, which the BBA [represents], shows a more complex understanding of how problems are going to be addressed and that’s wonderful.”