While policymakers at the highest levels of government struggle with how to address the foreclosure crisis, David Haller ’09 and Nick Hartigan ’09 of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau have forged a solution that’s forcing banks and mortgage companies to change the way they do business in Boston.
Through direct client representation as well as an astonishing effort to mobilize hundreds of college and law students throughout Boston, Dave and Nick have helped hundreds of people stay in their homes or landed significant monetary settlements enabling them to find new housing. Their efforts have literally stopped a death spiral in Boston neighborhoods of empty homes, urban blight, crime, and falling property values.
In late April, Dave and Nick received the Outstanding Student Award from the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), the national organization, in recognition of their foreclosure work. The annual award honors law students at various law schools who excel in clinical legal work.
“No one at Harvard Law has put in more hours and had such an impact on so many lives. Their work has not only changed the foreclosure crisis within the city of Boston, but will potentially serve as a model for the rest of the state and possibly cities throughout the country,” says one of their clinical professors.
Their efforts have been so successful that Dave and Nick are expanding statewide, partnering with churches and community organizations in other struggling cities such as Worcester and Brockton.
Both Nick and Dave joined the Legal Aid Bureau in the fall of 2007, as 2L students, just as the foreclosure crisis began to gather steam. While representing individual clients in Boston Housing Court, they witnessed that many others were at a terrible disadvantage because they did not have legal help. They also saw that although Massachusetts provides strong rights for tenants, most didn’t know their rights and were leaving their homes without a fight. At the same time, the banks – most of which were not local – showed no interest in letting people stay in their homes, even if they continued to pay rent. With hundreds of foreclosures occurring each week, the impact on families and Boston neighborhoods, particularly in low-income, minority areas, quickly reached crisis proportions.
Nick and Dave recognized that educating the public was essential. In January 2008, they founded the Foreclosure Task Force, which held weekly clinics to inform tenants of their rights and to help pro se clients with discovery requests and with legal paperwork that provided them with an automatic two-week eviction stay, which gave them time to find alternative housing. They also coordinated various legal service organizations to check each week’s court docket to find new eviction proceedings, then mailed to each tenant an invitation to learn about their legal rights.
They also continued to represent individual clients, landing significant victories. For example, in conjunction with students at Harvard’s WilmerHale Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain, they represented the Myers family, two grown sisters and a grown brother plus five minor children, who live in a three-family home in the Dorchester area of Boston, from which they run a family daycare. The family were tenants in the home when it was foreclosed on; the bank, based in Texas, refused to sell the property to them even thought they were approved for a mortgage and offered to pay the fair market purchase price. Working with the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, the local community organization City Life/Vida Urbana, Greater Boston Legal Services, and other groups, Nick and Dave helped organized a blockade when sheriffs came to evict the family, and the bank backed off. Through the students’ efforts in court and out, the Myers family have purchased the home and are living there.
Last November, Dave, along with another Legal Aid Bureau student, Eli Schlam ‘09, working under the supervision of J. Verner Moore, an HLAB clinical instructor, landed a $54,000 verdict against a New York bank for cutting off the heat and water of a Boston man they were trying to force out of the home he rented, which had been foreclosed on. The case was a landmark as the first post-foreclosure bank case to be tried to a jury in Boston in the city’s current foreclosure crisis, and the verdict may be doubled or tripled under state consumer protection laws. (Eric Levine ‘08, a student in the housing clinic at WilmerHale, had originally handled the case and handled much of the pre-trial work before graduating.)
But despite these victories, Nick and Dave realized they weren’t reaching enough people. In response, in September 2008, they created No One Leaves, a mobilization effort to reach every person in Boston whose home had been foreclosed on, to encourage them to stay in their homes. There was no model for their program. “We just kind of made it up,” says Nick.
Through No One Leaves, Nick and Dave have organized hundreds of undergraduate and law students at 11 universities, colleges, and law schools in the Boston area to canvass neighborhoods and inform tenants and homeowners of their legal rights after foreclosure. Since September, there have been more than 900 foreclosures in their target Boston neighborhoods. Each weekend, at least 10 students from Harvard Law School, including Nick and Dave, and scores of students from other schools canvass these high-need neighborhoods, knocking on the doors of foreclosed properties (they have a very high-tech operation, designed and managed by fellow HLAB student Tony Borich ‘09, and use public records and Google Maps to find the properties and create a database.) No One Leave has made multiple, in-person contacts with every single person affected by these 900 foreclosures. They’ve also taken on many of those persons as clients.
The purpose of the No One Leaves program is to make it financially untenable for banks to easily evict tenants after foreclosure. Through a so-called “cash for keys” effort, bank representatives have offered small amounts of money (typically, several hundred dollars) to entice them to leave. Tenants often accept the offer under the mistaken impression they have no choice. The program’s goal is to keep people in their homes, thereby keeping neighborhoods safe, and it has had numerous individual successes. Most recently, Nick litigated a case on behalf of a disabled man who was able to stay in his home. “The ultimate goal is to raise the cost of this strategy so banks stop evicting people,” says Nick. This pressure by these students is changing the landscape of Boston, as banks now realize it’s a city where it makes little financial sense to evict tenants after foreclosure.
Even in cases where tenants choose to leave, the students have made sure the process is fair, that tenants have enough time to find new housing, and that they are adequately compensated. Instead of clients taking a few hundred dollars in “cash for keys,” Nick has litigated approximately 15 cases with an average settlement ranging from $50,000 to $70,000. This adds up to more than $1 million total for tenants – and a substantial cost for banks.
Their own time commitment to this work is quite remarkable: between their regular Legal Aid Bureau work (a minimum of 20 hours per work) plus at least 20 hours a week with No One Leaves, Nick and Dave are working more than 40 hours a week on staunching the foreclosure disaster. Each Sunday for the past year, they have spent at least four hours each canvassing Boston neighborhoods for No One Leaves. On Thursdays, they each work for four hours as Attorneys of the Day in Boston Housing Court, representing people who don’t have lawyers. On Tuesdays, they volunteer at City Life for several hours. Nick also wrote a research paper on the need for the Foreclosure Task Force and describing the results of its work.
“I don’t think anything else really compares to the work I’ve done here at the Legal Aid Bureau,” says Nick. “This absolutely has been the highlight of what I’ve done here at the law school. This was an opportunity to make a legitimate difference, and it built on itself. We thought, ‘We could be a little bit more effective if we just did this,’ and then we just went and did it. We’re changing the way banks do business in Massachusetts.”