By, June 26, 2018
Empowering Small Businesses to Stay in the Neighborhood
As Boston real estate prices soar and gentrification in lower-income places like Dorchester and Jamaica Plain continues apace, residential tenants aren’t the only ones losing their homes. Small businesses that serve neighborhoods and give them their distinct character have far fewer legal protections and are being evicted or forced out by rising costs.
The Community Enterprise Project at HLS’s Transactional Law Clinics helps these communities fight back with a new “Commercial Leases 101” legal toolkit, created by two students to help business owners understand the importance of having a lease and how to negotiate better terms.
Last fall, Michael Trujillo ’18 and Alexandra Glancy ’19, with the guidance of Clinical Instructor Carlos Teuscher, teamed up to assist small businesses facing gentrification. First, the duo reached out to neighborhood and community organizations that are fighting to preserve their communities, including Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets, Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation. They canvassed small businesses to determine what would be most helpful before putting together the annotated toolkit, which offers a wealth of resources for better legal protections. Trujillo, who plans a career in social movement lawyering, says, “We are hoping this toolkit empowers small-business owners to have the legal knowledge to understand what a good lease looks like and ask for better arrangements with their landlords.” They presented the toolkit to local business and community groups and held office hours to help small-business owners negotiate more favorable leases.
CEP also shared the toolkit with the city of Boston, and Teuscher plans to have other clinical students continue to work with community partners to push for more statutory protections for commercial tenants. But the toolkit could have a greater reach than just Boston, he says. Toolkits produced in the past by CEP students have had a national impact, including an immigrant entrepreneur toolkit that clinics across the U.S. are using as a model. While landlord-tenant law is state-specific, Teuscher hopes the commercial lease toolkit’s widely applicable resources will allow it to have a similar impact.
Meanwhile, the educational experience for students is exceptional, Trujillo and Glancy say. “I learned so much, from interacting with and interviewing clients to thinking about innovative ways to use legal tools—for example, things you can put in a lease that aren’t in typical leases but can increase the tenant’s power,” says Glancy, who knew about TLC before coming to HLS and was drawn to the school in part because of it.
Clinical Professor Brian Price is director of the Transactional Law Clinics, which offer students work in a wide range of areas from business formation to taxation, real estate and employment matters. “Our approach from day one is that students will be taking ownership of the cases, and that they not see themselves as assisting their supervising attorney but rather as the person who is leading the case with the guidance of the supervising attorney,” Price says.
With CEP projects like the toolkit, he adds, there are leadership lessons. “Students learn to work in a team … and they see how lawyers—particularly transactional lawyers—can help lead not by dominating an issue but working alongside and collaboratively with community people.”