by Rachel Niegelberg J.D.’23
I entered law school this fall after ten years as a public school teacher in the New York public school system. Being an educator and working with students was the greatest privilege I’ve ever been afforded and my ultimate goal is to work towards a more equitable public education system. With that philosophy in mind, I chose my law school based on the opportunities available for hands-on, direct service work. When I first heard about the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP), I already felt like I had found my place. The work sounded inspiring and engaging, but little did I know that I would successfully advocate for my first client and prevent an eviction!
TAP is a Student Practice Organization that provides representation to residents in Section 8 or public housing who need support in claims against their housing authorities. Admittedly, my knowledge and experience in the housing area was limited, but I had seen first-hand how a lack of stable housing can have enormous ripple effects on children and their families. As an educator, I frequently worked with students and parents who were balancing the importance of their education with the reality of homelessness. That type of insecurity of a basic survival need often creates a seemingly impossible hurdle to health, comfort, and future success.
Shortly after my acceptance into TAP, I was assigned a case. I was to directly represent a client who was facing eviction from her home. Frankly, I was terrified. I had been in law school for about a month and almost couldn’t believe anyone would let me do this! This was such a far cry from the distant and abstract education I was receiving in my first year classes. This housing decision would have real consequences for my client in the present and in the future. From all perspectives, this case seemed challenging to win. There were many issues put forth from the housing authority as reasons to evict and I was worried about our chances for success. I realized that even if we didn’t win, TAP provides representation to clients who would otherwise almost certainly go without any legal support. Despite the challenges, I was ready to vigorously pursue a win for my client.
In getting to know my client, I learned that she had focused her life around self-improvement. I got to know the whole person, with emotions, regrets, challenges, and perseverance. My client chose to make life about personal growth, recovery, and gratitude. From our very first phone call, I received endless thanks just for taking the time to listen to my client’s story, let alone for working hard to guarantee the ability to remain in her home. I realized quickly that regardless of my limited experience, attending Harvard Law School put me in a position of privilege and power that enabled me to extend help to others and seek the justice they deserve.
With the help of my clinical supervisor and the support of my fellow TAP members, I was able to create a strong argument and I was ecstatic to have prevailed for my client! Knowing that someone is able to keep their housing, truly one of the most basic of necessities, in at least some part due to my assistance is really special. But I also know that our win was largely due to the hard work and growth my client had shown over the past year since the time of the eviction notice. My client was the model for what we hope people will do when faced with challenging circumstances. But, even if that wasn’t the case, my client deserved housing. Everyone does.
Housing is a human right. The effects of housing instability are far-reaching and often permanent. Without stable housing, education, employment, relationships, health and wellness, safety, security, and the ability to grow and achieve are all put at great risk. It was both heartbreaking and motivating to see firsthand how a devotion to personal growth and achievement could be destroyed by a single decision from a housing authority. It was informative and eye-opening to get a closer look at our public housing system.
Public housing seeks to provide an essential need to some of the most vulnerable members of our community but, at times, doesn’t provide grace or understanding to some of the societal issues that create those vulnerabilities in the first place. What has been created is an often opaque system that penalizes the people it seeks to serve, often for situations beyond their control or exacerbated by a society that punishes the poor. I feel honored to be part of an organization like TAP that will continue to provide zealous advocacy for our community and utilize our position to fight for the basic human right of housing that everyone deserves.