The following post from the HLS Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs blog is one of a regular series of student accounts of their experiences working with Clinics and Student Practice Organizations (SPOs) at Harvard Law School.
The notice came in a white envelope, hand-delivered by a staffer at the project-based Section 8 development that my elderly grandparents lived in. From the outside, it looked like it could be a notice that they received on a weekly basis. However, this was a “Notice to Cease.” From what my immigrant Chinese family could tell, it meant eviction. Then about to enter my first year of law school at Harvard Law School, I took charge of the situation. I knew nothing about subsidized housing and the rights afforded to my grandparents who spoke no English. Fumbling my way through preserving affordable housing for my grandparents and noticing the lack of culturally-competent legal services afforded to low-income tenants pushed me to join the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) as a 1L. My transformative time in TAP has not only led me to serve as the organization’s Co-President, but I hope to continue the fight for housing justice after graduation.
TAP is a student practice organization that provides representation and advice to tenants of subsidized housing who are facing eviction, subsidy termination, application denial or transfer denial. Every year, approximately 40 law students conduct a wide array of legal advocacy before local housing authorities. This ranges from reasonable accommodation requests for tenants with disabilities to representing clients at administrative hearings—a more informal, court-like proceeding—about eviction or termination of a rent subsidy. The ultimate goal of TAP’s practice is not only to ensure that tenants remain housed, but also that they are able to thrive in their affordable housing. Thus, student advocates work closely with social service providers in the Greater Boston area and conduct advocacy on policy issues that affect TAP’s client population. TAP’s intake process, run by a nine-student Intake Review Committee, allows advocates to shape the priorities and caseload of the organization. At the end of their time in TAP, students will have amassed a wealth of knowledge about many areas of the law and developed their trial advocacy, negotiation, legal research and writing, and client interviewing skills.
This skill acquisition is not the only reason why students join or return to TAP year after year. Students are also interested in housing justice and how it intersects with other pressing social issues. For example, one of my clients, who is elderly and disabled, was facing voucher termination because her son became addicted to opioids after a surgery and was arrested for possession of drugs. The arrest was not near her apartment and her son was actually away at college at the time. She had no idea about her son’s addiction, and in the years since, her son had turned his life around. Even still, the overlapping web of the criminal justice system, the nation’s opioid crisis, and other public health issues threatened my client’s stable housing. My colleagues and I worked with the son’s public defender, filed reasonable accommodation requests for my client’s disabilities, represented her at several hearings about her termination, and referred her to social services. Like every advocate, I grew immensely by getting to know and working closely with my client. I developed my legal research and writing skills, my understanding of how the administrative process is related to later court practice (i.e., preserving the record), and my ability to work effectively with clients with disabilities, especially translating complex legal concepts into everyday language. Personally, I was moved by the trusting relationships that organically formed between my client, her son, and me. Their resilience re-energized me. Further, I was grateful to have the opportunity to see and trace first-hand how housing justice is deeply linked to many other areas of law and policy, including disability law, criminal law, economic justice and public health. This front-row seat allows TAPpers to become passionate and effective legal aid and community lawyers, policymakers, and impact litigators, among many other career paths after graduation.
Moreover, TAP’s vibrant community, which gives students a space to engage with the Greater Boston community, discuss various social issues and reflect on law school, is where many TAPpers make life-long friends. Key to this community has been TAP’s long-time Clinical Instructors, Lynn Weissberg and Marcia Peters, who have supervised students for over 30 years. Lynn, who founded TAP in 1981, has been a strong advocate for housing justice in the Greater Boston area, from the days of rent control until today. Marcia, who joined TAP a few years after TAP’s founding, has similarly fiercely fought for the rights of low-income tenants. On each case that they supervised, Marcia and Lynn not only brought wisdom and legal insight, but they have taught, by example, generations of TAPpers what it means to zealously advocate for your client. Though Marcia retired this past April and Lynn retired in October, TAP’s community is only expanding. We are excited to welcome Shelley Barron to the TAP family as our new Clinical Instructor. Since her start this past June, we have seen how her background in housing law, family law and working with survivors of domestic violence has strengthened our advocacy for clients.
In the summer before law school, I was able to help my grandparents remain in their affordable housing. But as I have explored housing justice more and more throughout law school, I have realized that lack of culturally-competent representation is not the only barrier to affordable housing. Rather, sheer lack of enough affordable housing, housing policies and laws that clash with communities’ differing conceptions of family and dignified living, and the effect of intersecting issues like economic injustice prevent the fulfillment of housing as a human right in the United States. I hope to bring my skills, experiences, personal background and understanding of the Asian American community to my future work in housing justice. As I look towards graduation and practicing law in the “real world,” I only hope that I can be as brave and resilient and my TAP clients, as fierce and compassionate as Lynn, Marcia and Shelley, and as dedicated to housing and social justice as my fellow TAPpers.