By Alev Erhan
During my first year of law school, I was eager to get away from the HLS bubble and our classroom hypotheticals by meeting and helping people in Greater Boston. I was thrilled to be selected into the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP), which provides representation and advice to tenants of affordable housing who are facing eviction or subsidy termination.
Just over a month into my first semester, upon mindlessly refreshing my inbox, I saw that I had been assigned to my first case and promptly forgot how to breathe. I was to advocate on behalf of a mother facing eviction from public housing for allegedly allowing her daughter’s father to stay in her apartment more days than the arbitrary maximum allowed by her lease. My initial shock at the absurd disproportionality between the violation and subsequent penalty was soon diminished by the understanding that my client’s experience was apparently a fairly standard type of case for TAP, for which there is a fairly standard legal solution. I prepared to suggest to my client a “No Visit No Reside” or NVNR agreement in which tenants agree that a particular person no longer visits or (you guessed it) resides in the unit. Though seemingly straightforward, these agreements can be sinister in that they often involve one member of the family being kicked out of the residence, many times forcing parents to ask their own children to leave, in order to prevent the eviction of everyone on the lease.
The next day I met with my client for the first time, waiting until the end of our discussion to launch into my carefully scripted spiel about a possible NVNR. Within seconds her eyes shot wide open and she rolled her chair back, repeating “no, no, no” so vehemently I was reeling to somehow take back every word that had come out of my mouth. Despite diminished odds that my client would successfully overcome eviction proceedings without signing this agreement, our role was to advocate for her goal—and her goal was to ensure that her daughter’s father would still be able to visit the unit while maintaining her tenancy. I never met my client’s daughter but over the following months she became very present in my life, from the late night phone calls from my client I couldn’t bear to ignore to the sense of injustice I felt every time I thought about the case.
All our preparatory work with TAP was leading up to an ‘informal conference’ hosted by the housing authority to supposedly reach a settlement favorable to all parties. While the more ‘formal’ administrative hearings already lack many aspects of due process a person should be guaranteed in court, such purportedly informal meetings are often nothing more than a conference table in which attorneys can wield their gross power imbalance and the threat of eviction to present tenants, who rarely have legal representation, with coercive agreements.
At our conference, my client had two representatives from Harvard Law School (myself and my supervisor), a psychiatrist, and two social workers in the room advocating to keep this young girl’s father in her life. Our request was merely that he be able to visit the apartment on occasion. In response to our concerns, the housing authority attorney leaned back in his chair, put his knee up on the conference table, and scanned the room as he said that with so many supportive figures in this young girl’s life he felt confident that she would be just fine. I don’t believe the attorney could have said this statement if my client’s daughter was in the room and could not stop thinking about how many voiceless people, just like my client’s daughter, are ignored by the eviction process.
Ultimately, TAP was successful in preserving housing for a woman and her child through a negotiated settlement. Our client was empowered to demand an agreement on her terms, refusing to accept the housing authority’s “take it or leave it” approach despite abundant intimidation. However, it would be a disservice to allow these wins to blind us from the absurdity that is a world in which tax dollars go towards preventing a child from hanging out with her dad in her own home.