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Tag: Maureen McDonagh

Harvard Law School’s ‘outstanding’ housing rights advocacy work honored by Boston Bar Association

Lisa Owens (City Life/Vida Urbana), Zoe Kronin (Greater Boston Legal Services), Maureen McDonagh (Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School), and Eloise Lawrence (Harvard Legal Aid Bureau) accept the 2019 John G. Brooks Legal Services Award on behalf of their organizations. Photo courtesy of the Boston Bar Association.

By Grace Yuh

In September, two Harvard Law School clinics and their community partner organizations were recognized by the Boston Bar Association (BBA) for their collaborative efforts to fight housing displacement in greater Boston.

WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), and City Life/Vida Urbana, received the BBA’s John G. Brooks Legal Services Award for a “creative, combined strategy of community organizing and legal defense to advocate with and for tenants and homeowners across the city.” The award, presented annually by the BBA, recognizes “professional legal services attorneys for their outstanding work on behalf of indigent clients in greater Boston.” This was the first time since its establishment that the award was received by a collective of four groups.

“These four organizations represent the very best in collaboration and commitment to finding solutions for Boston’s housing crisis,” said incoming BBA President Christine Netski, managing partner at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen. “Their innovative partnership is an excellent model for others looking to bring lawyers and community organizers together to create positive change.”

The cost of housing in greater Boston has increased significantly over the past 10 years. As more and more properties are becoming increasingly expensive, middle- and low- income individuals and families have fewer options to secure housing.

Eloise Lawrence, a community lawyering Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law at HLAB, provided insight into how the evolution of the Boston Housing crisis makes it a persistent legal issue, noting how widespread gentrification and foreclosure in the greater Boston area continues to displace community members.

“The real crisis in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis was when a lot of speculators and investors came into communities that had been devastated. They took advantage of the fact that the prices of the homes had decreased dramatically and they started buying them up, which set off yet another speculative frenzy.” she said.

Maureen McDonagh, LSC Managing Attorney and Lecturer on Law at the Housing Law Clinic, also elaborated on why this issue is more relevant than ever to the legal community.

“Over the years we’ve seen cuts to legal services. That means there are even fewer attorneys representing folks in housing courts.” said McDonagh. “For unrepresented people, finding representation is virtually impossible. To find an apartment that is affordable, safe, clean is near impossible. People who are being evicted are finding themselves more and more homeless and this includes families. That’s why I think the BBA has concentrated more on [this issue].”

Lawrence noted that the collaborative nature between the four organizations developed in part through the work of the late David Grossman, Clinical Professor, who worked at LSC before becoming the Faculty Director at HLAB. Grossman brought students from LSC and HLAB into the anti-foreclosure movement that GBLS and City Life/Vida Urbana were already participating in. Since then, the partnership between all four organizations has expanded and grown. A hallmark of the partnership between these four organizations, the Sword and Shield method relies on the concerted and joint effort of local and legal communities; and focuses on empowering and encouraging individuals to stand up for their rights.

“The Shield is legal defense and the Sword is public protest and public pressure.” explained Steve Meacham, Organizing Coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana. “There are procedures of the law that we can take advantage of and … legal proceedings allow the public pressure to then really work.”

City Life/Vida Urbana, whose primary mission is fighting against forced displacement, represents the “sword” through work such as organizing tenant associations and doing eviction blockades. HLS students and attorneys from LSC and GBLS complete the “shield” of the Sword and Shield method by providing legal services and advice. This can range from partial to full representation in court, with the City Life/Vida Urbana meetings in both Jamaica Plain and East Boston providing a space in which law students and attorneys can meet with individuals or client unions looking for legal aid. Additionally, GBLS, LSC, and HLAB participate in the “Lawyer for the Day” program, in conjunction with the BBA and Volunteer Lawyers Project.

“We go to housing court to help people who are being evicted that day, who don’t have a lawyer. We pick up cases right there.” said McDonagh on the program, which has assisted more than 18,000 individuals since 1999.

Outside of the direct services that the four organizations provide, they also convene for monthly Sword and Shield meetings that provide a space for lawyers and organizers to discuss and reflect on issues regarding partnership and individual work. Lawrence explained how these meetings are a good opportunity for organizers and lawyers to connect beyond shared clients.

“I think there’s huge synergy that happens when organizers and lawyers work together. I view it as part of my job to teach law students, especially those that have never worked with organizers before, to understand where the role of lawyer and organizer overlap and where they are distinct. I think that [to be] a good lawyer or an organizer, you need to be an empathetic human, you need to listen and learn. It sounds simple but it often gets overlooked in legal education.” she said.

Additionally, Meacham emphasized the strengths of community lawyering in a movement like the anti-foreclosure movement, where it is important to empower the collective of those in need of help.

“It’s been a privilege to work with all of them.” Meacham said, “In addition to being on the right side of cases about tenants, they are very skilled community lawyers, which is why they’re here taking short consultations. They understand that they’re representing collectively the movement … in terms of their practice outside of the client-attorney relationship, they’re practicing community lawyering so they’re looking at cases that will help a movement.” he said.

McDonagh also emphasized the nature of the collaboration between the four organizations and their relationship with the greater Boston community. “We are honored to be recognized for our efforts but the people who are the real heroes are the ordinary individuals standing up for their rights.” she said.

GBLS Executive Director Jacquelynne J. Bowman says receiving the Brooks Legal Services Award is a wonderful recognition of what impactful, collaborative advocacy can really look like.

“Greater Boston Legal Services is greatly honored to have been chosen by the Boston Bar Association as a co-recipient of the 2019 John G. Brooks Legal Services Award”, she said.  “This is a testament to the impactful advocacy efforts of our Housing Unit advocates and partners at the Harvard Legal Assistance Bureau, WilmerHale Legal Services Center, and City Life/Vida Urbana to help low-income families avoid or delay their displacement from increasingly unaffordable neighborhoods.”

Lawrence echoed this sentiment, noting the implications for how the legal community might best approach large-scale socio-economic issues in the future.

“It’s a recognition … that effective advocacy happens when people work together, especially when lawyers and non-lawyers work together.” Lawrence said. “When you’re dealing with complex problems like lack of affordable housing and the displacement of people from their homes, lawyers are never going to do this alone. The recognition from the legal community, which the BBA [represents], shows a more complex understanding of how problems are going to be addressed and that’s wonderful.”



Students’ Legal Skills Help Prevent Homelessness

Via the Legal Services Center 

Source: Flickr

William* was feeling hopeless. Elderly, disabled, and receiving treatment for a recent kidney transplant, he was stunned when his landlord unexpectedly served him with a no-fault notice of eviction. With his health failing in the dead of a frigid Boston winter, he suddenly faced the alarming prospect of living on the streets.

Yet when it looked like all was lost, William experienced a spectacular reversal of fortune. He walked into Edward D. Brooke Courthouse in Boston and obtained free legal assistance from a student of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), who was participating in the clinic’s ‘Attorney for the Day’ program.

Moments after William approached the Attorney for the Day booth that March day, LSC Housing Court student Nicolette Roger ‘19 went right to work; she reviewed the facts of his case and counseled him on how to advocate for himself in court.

A roll of the dice

It was not an easy task. According to Roger, his case “was a roll of the dice.” William was scheduled to be evicted from his home that same day; he had exceeded a deadline that a judge had given him to find new housing.

William had been struggling to manage the situation not only because of his extensive hospital stay after the transplant, but also due to the fact that, like 95 percent of low-income tenants who find themselves in Housing Court, he had no attorney to represent him.

He is precisely the type of Bostonian that Attorney for the Day aims to reach. Organized by the Boston Bar Association (BBA), the program draws attorneys from local legal services organizations as well as volunteers from the area’s leading firms.

The BBA advertises that these services are available at Boston Housing Court every Thursday morning, though many community members find out about the program by word of mouth or simply happen upon the sign and table on the day of their hearing.

The guidance that tenants receive can make a huge difference. Roger explains that for someone like William who has no familiarity with the legal system, “even just navigating the courthouse can be difficult,” much less winning a case as a pro se tenant.

While the Attorney for the Day program is a transformative learning opportunity for students, it is life-changing for clients like William, who receive last-minute, ‘game-day’ counsel.

“One of my favorite experiences at Harvard”

Tom Snyder ‘18, who was participating in Attorney for the Day with the LSC for the first time last spring before graduation, attests that it is an incredibly challenging and demanding experience, but also one so rewarding that “it’s been one of my favorite experiences at Harvard.”

The program is overseen by the Director of the Housing Law Clinic, Maureen McDonagh. Students’ responsibilities at Attorney for the Day typically begin with ensuring that clients are in the courtroom at the proper time to respond when the judge does roll call. This is crucial because if the client is not present, the judge will issue a default judgment – an outcome that will likely lead to eviction.

“You’re definitely thrown right in,” explains Tyra Walker ‘18.

While the student attorney is often needed inside the courtroom to help a client file a motion or address a judge, frequently the work takes place in the adjacent hallway or in the mediation room, where negotiations between tenant and the landlord’s attorney occur.

In these cases, students must quickly learn about the client’s situation, assess whether defenses or counterclaims exist, and, where appropriate, determine how to reach an agreement with the landlord.

Righting a power imbalance

The students’ presence is crucial because often, a striking power imbalance is at play. Over 95 percent of landlords enter the courtroom with an attorney, while only 5 percent of low-income renters have that same protection.

When tenants lack representation, it is typically the case that “the landlord’s attorneys have more negotiating power, and clients end up agreeing to terms they can’t adhere to,” according to Kelsey Annu-Essuman ‘19.

Clients like William could easily slip through the cracks without the help from students. There were 127 cases on trial that day, and just two judges and five mediators present.

For many HLS students, this high-stakes environment is the first in which they will be responsible for representing a client in a dispute with real-world consequences. The situation is distinctly challenging because they have just a fraction of the time that Housing Court students typically would to secure a favorable outcome for the client.

Last-minute intervention of the sort that Attorney for the Day provides can be a lifeline for a tenant in a tough situation and can play a vital role in preventing homelessness. Still, the majority of cases handled by Housing Clinic students involve full representation of low-income tenants in complex and ongoing litigation, rather than emergency advice.

Indeed, for the students, Attorney for the Day is a highly educative and memorable experience precisely because it is so different from the in-depth, long-term work that students normally do in the Clinic – instead, just an hour in the courthouse can save a client from homelessness.

“You don’t get a lot of these experiences in law school,” affirms Walker, a three-time veteran of Attorney for the Day.

Using legal training in high-stakes courtroom experience

During Attorney for the Day, students work toward the same outcomes as they do during the semester – preventing eviction, improving housing conditions, halting utilities shutdown — but in this case, they have the opportunity to effect change behind the scenes, and very quickly.

Roger seized this opportunity when she prepped William to stand in front of the judge and request an extension on his timeline to pursue alternatives.

She explained to him what was about to happen and provided William with talking points. He listened intently, and when the time came he explained to the judge that because of his kidney transplant and severe medical problems, he had not yet found a new place. Moreover, he explained, in his condition homelessness would equate to a certain health catastrophe. In setting forth all this, William – again, relying on the advice Roger had shared – successfully documented the efforts he had made to date to obtain housing.

The appeal was successful. The judge offered William a one-month stay of eviction, given that he provided ample evidence of his ongoing housing search.

Roger, McDonagh, and other members of the Housing Clinic team made sure to follow up and help William with the search. Shortly thereafter, he took the first steps through the doorway of his affordable new housing unit, with time to spare.

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Moving Day in Boston: What Are Tenants’ Rights?

Via Housing Law Clinic

With the single biggest residential moving day in Greater Boston coming up on September 1, renters moving out of one place and signing a lease on a new one need to know their rights as tenants. One way to do that is to check out the newly updated book Legal Tactics: Private Housing, an easy-to-understand, comprehensive handbook on Massachusetts tenants’ rights for lay audiences.

Portrait photo of Julia Devanthery, Clinical Instructor, Housing Law Clinic

Julia Devanthery, Clinical Instructor, Housing Law Clinic

The book focuses on private rental housing and answers questions on everything from security deposits and last month’s rent to rent and utilities, repairs, evictions, housing discrimination, lead poisoning, mobile homes, and tenants in foreclosed properties.

It is available for free online or you can purchase a hard copy online or by calling   Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education at 1-800-966-6253 .

Portrait photo of Maureen McDonagh, Lecturer on Law, Housing Law Clinic

Maureen McDonagh, Lecturer on Law, Housing Law Clinic

More than forty sample forms, letters, and checklists provide tenants and their advocates with the tools needed to prevent problems, gain protections, and communicate effectively with landlords, boards of health, and courts. A one-stop reference, this book also provides the legal information tenants need through footnotes, an expanded phone directory, and actual text of key laws.

“This book empowers unrepresented people and arms non-lawyer advocates as they take on powerful opponents and navigate a challenging legal system,” says Julia Devanthery, one of the lawyers at LSC who represents low income clients on housing issues.

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Boston Bar Association posts podcast featuring Julia Devanthery and Maureen E. McDonagh

Via Legal Services Center

Julia Devanthery and Maureen E. McDonagh are featured in this Boston Bar podcast about the proposed statewide expansion of the Housing Court.

Housing Law Clinic: fighting housing displacement and insecurity

By Catherine Peyton Humphreville, J.D. ’16

Credit: Brooks Kraft

Credit: Brooks Kraft
Catherine Peyton Humphreville, J.D. ’16 and Lecturer on Law Maureen McDonagh

Working with homeless and street-involved youth as a legal intern at the Urban Justice Center’s Peter Cicchino Youth Project after my first year of law school, I saw that many of my clients first encountered legal troubles when they became homeless. After arriving back at school that fall semester, I set out to use legal tools to prevent homelessness and housing insecurity before it started. With that goal in mind, I enrolled in the Housing Law Clinic.

During my first semester, I worked on eviction cases. I learned about the unsafe housing conditions faced by many of Boston’s low-income residents and how to use the housing code and consumer protection law to fight these conditions. I also saw how domestic violence exacerbates housing crises and learned to work in tandem with the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic to help my client’s family. As a continuing clinical student during the Spring 2015 semester, I wrote an appellate brief in a foreclosure case, representing a single mother who had been fighting for her home for eight years, and attended weekly meetings at City Life/Vida Urbana, an anti-displacement community organizing group blocks from the Legal Services Center. Both semesters, I was able to forge close working relationships with clients through one-on-one meetings while also developing my writing skills and substantive knowledge of foreclosure law under the close supervision of Lecturer on Law Maureen McDonagh and Clinical Instructor Julia Devanthery.

I came to law school in part to advocate for women and LGBTQ people. By participating in the Attorney for the Day program at Boston Housing Court, I saw that it was primarily women and people of color facing eviction, who almost always had no access to legal representation and I began to see housing security as a feminist and anti-racist issue. I hope to be able to use the litigation and client-interviewing skills I learned in the Housing Law Clinic together with the transactional skills I garnered in two semesters with the Community Enterprise Project to fight housing insecurity and displacement in New York after completing a clerkship.


Maureen McDonagh Named to Mayor’s Task Force

Maureen E. McDonagh, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor in the Post Foreclosure Eviction Defense Housing Clinic

Maureen E. McDonagh, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor in the Post Foreclosure Eviction Defense Housing Clinic

Via the Legal Services Center

Maureen E. McDonagh, Director of the Post-Foreclosure Eviction Defense/Housing Law Clinic has been named to a new task force convened by Mayor Martin J. Walsh set to take on a challenge that has stymied Boston’s leaders for years: how to create more housing for low- and middle-income residents in a city beset by soaring rents and home prices.

Walsh announced the formation of the group composed of academics, developers, planners, tenants, and landlords in April, 2014.

“All of Boston’s residents deserve access to good quality housing,” Walsh said. “We will get there. We will make sure the city is a place that everyone in the community can call home.”

Walsh has charged the task force with producing a plan by early summer that sets concrete goals to meet the city’s housing needs along with strategies for reaching them. Among many challenges, he said, the group will need to find a way to control development costs while encouraging private developers to build homes and apartments for low-income families and the elderly.

HLS Clinic Launches Mattapan Initiative to Avert Foreclosures

L-R: Julia Devanthery, Roger Bertling, Maureen McDonagh, Charlie Carrier and Brandon German

HLS News, recently profiled the efforts of the Mattapan Initiative, a program dedicated to combating foreclosures in Mattapan:

With a $415,000 grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office—and the help of a groundbreaking new law that offers homeowners strong pre-foreclosure protections—the HLS WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) has launched a new program to help fight foreclosures in Mattapan, one of Boston’s most challenged neighborhoods.

The Mattapan Initiative, which will have a special focus on pre-foreclosure efforts as well as expanding post-foreclosure work, is under the direction of Roger Bertling, a Senior Clinical Instructor and Director of the LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Unit. The grant has provided for the hiring of two full-time attorneys with expertise in fighting foreclosures as well as a community outreach coordinator to inform Mattapan residents of the initiative and their rights under the new law.

“We feel very fortunate that the money came in at the same time the law came into place,” says Bertling, who has been supervising HLS students in anti-foreclosure work at LSC since the foreclosure crisis first emerged over six years ago. “It places us in the forefront of people doing [anti-foreclosure] work, and in keeping with the tradition of LSC being at the edge of where legal work meets community need.”

In February 2012, 49 state attorneys general and the federal government announced an historic $25 billion settlement with the country’s five largest mortgage servicers over fraudulent mortgage practices. In addition to direct payments to some former homeowners, the settlement also provided funds to the states; Massachusetts, which received $44.5 million, has used some of the money to establish the AG’s HomeCorps program and for anti-foreclosure grants.

“These grants are designed to help Massachusetts homeowners impacted by the foreclosure crisis with direct financial and legal assistance,” says Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, “and Harvard Law School—through the Mattapan Initiative—is doing just that. We are pleased to see this funding being used for critical foreclosure prevention efforts and mitigation services as we work to stabilize communities across the Commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, the new state law—unlike any other in the country, Bertling says—offers homeowners who’ve been victimized by predatory loans strong new protections including requiring lenders to offer loan modifications before they can proceed with foreclosure, in many circumstances. In the past, homeowners usually had to wait until foreclosure began to have any success in fighting back. The Act Preventing Unnecessary and Unlawful Foreclosures was passed by the Massachusetts legislature last August, and the Mattapan Initiative will be at the leading edge of making sure banks comply with it, Bertling says.

“It puts another tool in the legal services attorney’s tool box for getting the homeowner some leverage so they can stay in their home at an affordable payment, which is our goal,” adds Charlie Carriere, who was hired as a clinical fellow in the Predatory Lending Practice through the grant to focus on pre-foreclosure cases. Carriere joined the Mattapan Initiative in March after serving as a clinical fellow at the California Monitor Program, where his work focused on enforcement of the National Mortgage Settlement.

Since launching in March, the Mattapan Initiative has interviewed scores of Mattapan residents, although full representation of most of them has been on hold until recently, when the precise parameters of the law became clear. Brandon German, a marketing expert with community organizing experience hired with the grant funds to head community outreach for the Initiative, has been going door-to-door in Mattapan to inform residents of the new law and the work of the LSC, as well as attending community events and holding information sessions. “Our whole goal is to find people before they are displaced,” he says. “We want to prevent displacement and homelessness, and protect neighborhoods.” His message has been enthusiastically received, he says, although the biggest hurdle is convincing homeowners that LSC doesn’t charge them for its legal services.

Now that regulations related to the act were finally promulgated, in June, Bertling expects pre-foreclosure legal activity to ratchet up in the next weeks as lenders and attorneys react to the new requirements—just in time for the clinical students in the new academic year. Starting in the fall, students in two LSC units—the predatory lending/consumer unit and the post-foreclosure housing unit—will participate in the Mattapan Initiative, presenting them with exceptional education opportunities, Bertling says.

“They will be looking at an entirely new law with new regulations that no one has interpreted before,” says Bertling. “There is no case law. So it’s a whole new version of learning the law, with no precedent to rely on. They’ll have to figure out what the law means and how it will be implemented. That’s a rare opportunity.”

HLS is a national leader in fighting the foreclosure crisis. Both LSC and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau have been working for years to assist tenants and homeowners fight wrongful evictions, especially since the foreclosure crisis of 2008, including through the nationally renowned Project No One Leaves, launched by two former bureau students.

The Mattapan Initiative is an expansion of those efforts, with a unique slant: focusing on particular section of Boston. Bertling says they chose to focus on Mattapan for a number of reasons, including that it is a traditionally underserved area, has an overwhelming minority population—primarily African-American and Haitian-American—that have difficulty accessing legal help, and has an unusually high percentage of single-family homes for Boston.

“Folks are still struggling and bearing the brunt of these incredibly predatory loans made some time ago that only now are rearing their ugly heads and making it so families can’t make their mortgage payments, which sets off the foreclosure process,” says Julia Devanthéry, who was hired with the grant money as a staff attorney for the Initiative, and will focus on post-foreclosure work in Mattapan.  “The roots of this crisis are in the bad loans that were made in a totally deregulated environment and were predatory to begin with, and were never meant to succeed.”

“It’s a really exciting opportunity for all of us,” says Bertling. “We have a longstanding, great relationship with the [state] Attorney General’s office, and this is another way they’re showing how highly they think of our work.”

Read more: Hope for homeowners facing foreclosure in Mattapan from the July 30, 2013 Boston Globe.

By Elaine McCardle

The Mattapan Initiative was also profiled on August 1, 2013 in the Dorchester Reporter.

Resources: Materials from the Fall 2012 Clinical Ethics Training

Thanks again to the students and speakers – Dean Martha Minow, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, Assistant Dean of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs Lisa Dealy,
Clinical Instructor Shaun Goho, Lecturer on Law Jeremy McClane, and Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor Maureen McDonagh – who participated the Fall 2012 Clinical Ethics Event!

Please see below for a video of the presentation, the presentation slides, and the handouts provided to attendees. Enjoy!

Presentation Video
Ethics Training Video

Presentation Slides
Review the presentation slides while watching the video.

Presentation Handouts
Review the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, excerpts from the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, and the Clinical Confidentiality Policy.