The Tenant Advocacy Project (affectionately known as TAP) represents clients in benefits termination, public housing eviction, and application denial hearings at housing authorities. TAP co-presidents Emily Seelenfreund, J.D. ’17 and Laura Dismore J.D. ’17 reflect on their time with the organization.
OCP: What interested you in working with TAP?
ES: I came to law school because I wanted to use a legal degree to make an impact in the public sector. It’s all too easy to spend 1L in a bubble but I didn’t want to become removed from the issues that impact my future clients. I chose TAP because of the opportunity to directly represent clients right from the get-go and because equitable access to housing is such a vitally important right.
LD: TAP caught my attention from the very beginning – I remember realizing that I had never thought about how much housing (and particularly housing instability) can affect other aspects of people’s lives. The more I learned about TAP, the various local and state bureaucracies our clients (and, by extension, TAP members) have to navigate, and the areas of law that intersect with housing, the more excited I was to participate.
OCP: Can you describe a memorable case or project that you have worked on?
ES: I met one of my most memorable clients last year at an outreach event I coordinated with Haley House. She was facing termination of her Section 8 subsidy, without which she was unable to afford housing. At the hearing my client gave powerful testimony about how the abuse she had suffered as a child had led to a life of addiction but how with the help of Haley House and other programs she was taking control of her life. The Housing Authority found her mitigating evidence persuasive and our client retained her subsidy and was therefore able to continue turning her life around.
LD: Last year, I worked on a priority status denial case. My client had been displaced by a fire, but the housing authority had denied him natural disaster priority status because he hadn’t been able to provide documentation of his tenancy (or of the fire itself). That’s because his lease and all his other documents were burned up in the fire that made him homeless, and because the Fire Department had no record of the blaze despite multiple news articles describing its devastation. I was able to track down his landlady and get her to sign sworn statements about his tenancy. The fire report was tricky, but we eventually found it thanks to one firefighter with an incredibly good memory: the report had been filed incorrectly, which is why my client couldn’t retrieve it despite diligent efforts. The housing authority ultimately reversed their decision and gave him priority status on the waitlist, which was an exciting victory. But even now, six years after the fire and almost a full year after he went to the top of the waitlist, my former client has yet to be given a voucher and is currently still homeless.
OCP: How would you evaluate your learning experience? Do you feel you’ve gained new skills in working with TAP?
ES: TAP has been an invaluable learning experience and among the most compelling experiences during my time at HLS. I’ve come to really understand the importance of coordination among legal services organizations, as so many of our clients are facing battles not just with their housing- but also their disability, veterans, childcare, and other services. I’ve also learned the importance of persistence- oftentimes receiving necessary documentation from other service providers requires multiple follow-ups and perseverance. TAP has two experienced clinical instructors and working with them allows students to gain experience working under supervision while still managing their own caseload.
OCP: What would you say is your biggest learning experience?
LD: Aside from the substantive legal concepts, the biggest learning experience for me has been the importance of fighting for our clients in whatever way we can. Working on a case last year, I had to follow up with a client’s former landlady who did not want to talk to me. In fact, she hung up on me the first time I called. I told my supervisor the landlady was unresponsive and that there wasn’t much we could do. My supervisor’s response will probably echo in my ears for the rest of my life: “Wow, you’re giving up on this very easily.” No one had ever told me that before, but I realized she was absolutely right. We came up with a strategy to try to get the landlady to work with us, and it succeeded! We got the documentation we needed and ultimately won the case. And I learned that if your clients need you to go to the mat for them, you do it, even if it’s scary and you’re not sure how.