By Olivia Klein
A Cambridge mother of five will keep her Section 8 housing voucher thanks to the diligent work of Alison Roberts, J.D. ‘22, a third-year student in the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP).
In a recent administrative hearing with the Cambridge Housing Authority, Roberts presented an argument encompassing all that she knew about her client: a dedicated mother who has overcome hardships to raise her children in a loving home. Bringing the charges levied against her client into this context, while also pointing to favorable legal precedents, Roberts secured the reinstatement of her client’s housing voucher.
Roberts called her client immediately after receiving news of the victory. “I could just hear the weight being lifted off her shoulders,” she said. “It’s a beautiful moment when you’re able to give your client that win. It’s a moment when you can really feel the impact of the work we do at TAP.”
The Tenant Advocacy Project is a Student Practice Organization at HLS that gives students the opportunity to provide zealous advocacy for current and prospective public housing tenants and mobile voucher holders in the greater Boston area. Roberts joined the organization at a 1L, and it immediately became a haven for her within the law school. “TAP was such an integral part of my experience during my 1L year. I got a case my first semester in law school! I remember when the hearing date got set. I was so nervous.”
The nerves have since dissipated. When she was assigned her first case, Roberts’ TAP peers immediately sprang into action, helping her moot the hearing and preparing her for everything that she could expect. Students in TAP work within groups that include 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls, which allows students to mentor one another, supporting each other’s casework from beginning to end. “It’s been amazing to see how someone who’s only been doing this for three years has so much to contribute to someone who’s brand new,” said Roberts, who has gone on to be Co-President of the organization since that very first hearing. “One of the special things about TAP is the way that you grow into your role during your three years.”
For Roberts, part of that growth has been a result of overcoming unforeseen challenges presented by the pandemic. Roberts argued in TAP’s first Zoom hearing during the earliest days of the pandemic, eager to make it work in the new virtual world so that her client would not go without a home for any longer. “I’m proud that we continued taking cases during that time, and that we remained an organization that felt like a community for a lot of students while we were scattered apart from one another.”
Being a part of this community has “breathed life into the law” for Roberts. “In my teams during my 2L and 3L years, it was cool to bring what my 1L team leader taught me about how to encourage my teammates while also challenging them to make sure that the work is as good as it can be. I’ve gotten to see my younger teammates grow as advocates and learn so much about public housing law. It’s been amazing.”
A comprehensive knowledge of public housing law was integral to Roberts’ recent win, but storytelling was an equally key element. Roberts began her portion of the hearing by asking the client to introduce herself and tell the panel a bit about her children, an idea which sprang from conversations between the two of them. “When I was talking to my client during one of our in-person meetings, I asked her to say a little about her kids, and her eyes just lit up,” Roberts recalls. “She loves her children so much and is working so hard for them. I realized that if the panel also saw that, they would realize that this isn’t a family that’s just letting things happen that are causing lease violations. They’re a family that’s going through a struggle, but they love each other and work hard for each other while they’re going through hard times.”
Prioritizing the humanity of her client and her circumstances throughout the hearing was not only key to building an argument, but also to building trust within the attorney-client relationship, especially while working within a system that most interact with only during their lowest moments.
“Unfortunately, our public benefits system pushes people to share the worst of what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “It forces people to paint themselves as sick, or as weak, or as incapable. The story that has to be told to take advantage of the way the public benefits system values mitigating circumstances or disability is often a hard story for people to tell. While my client was struggling with things, she was also overcoming many struggles.”
The case was a culminating experience for Roberts. “It brought all the legal skills I need together. Since the facts weren’t as good, I dove into legal research related to public housing to find the most favorable precedents and apply them to my case. When I brought up precedents about reliable hearsay in public housing administrative hearings, it stuck in the minds of the conference panel. I think it gave them the room they felt they were lacking to decide favorably for my client.”
“Alison’s representation is a great example of the incredible work that the volunteer law students at TAP undertake every year,” said Gary Allen, Clinical Instructor and Supervising Attorney at TAP. “TAP offers powerful hands-on training years before law students take their bar exam, and at the same time contributes to housing justice and stability for those in our community who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn.”
Roberts is heading to Bronx Legal Services after graduation, where she will work on public benefits issues. Part of this work will include starting a medical-legal partnership with community health centers in the Bronx to make sure that those most deeply impacted by the pandemic are receiving the help they need. Before she moves on to what’s next, she leaves one piece of advice for current students:
“Join an SPO! They’re so special because you can be involved for all three years here, and they immediately ground your law school experience. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to do this work. I hope new students coming to Harvard get involved in TAP or other SPOs, because it’s such a wonderful community to be a part of.”