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Safe Houses

If the Martindale-Hubbell lawyer directory ever created a new category for Lauren Saunders' line of work, it would probably read "slumlord slayer."

Lauren SandersShe helped rewrite Los Angeles' housing codes and has pursued Los Angeles' most notorious landlord so fiercely he sued her for slander.

Yet when she graduated from HLS in 1988 with an additional degree at the Kennedy School and a year as the Law Review's executive editor, she didn't quite know what she was going to do.

Sure, she knew that she wanted to return to Los Angeles and do some kind of public interest law. So after clerking, she took a fellowship at the Center for Law and the Public Interest before moving to Bet Tzedek ("House of Justice" in Hebrew), a local nonprofit dedicated to helping Los Angeles' poorest residents.

"I was interested in getting back to people who are really in need," Saunders said. "This position appealed to me because it has a policy side as well. It melds the two sides of my interests."

She wound up trying to bolster Los Angeles housing just as a good chunk of it suddenly started falling down. Saunders started work only two weeks before the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

Shaky ground was the least of her problems, Saunders said. She walked in with no idea how to fix the housing problems in Los Angeles' low-income Latino neighborhoods, where immigrant residents were often afraid to call government offices to complain.

She knocked on doors and visited community groups, learning about the cockroaches and rats that bit kids and left behind droppings. Then there were the unlit halls and lead paint. And broken plumbing that bred mold and inflamed asthma.

Saunders quickly helped revamp Los Angeles' housing codes. Instead of waiting for violations to be reported, housing inspectors now go out and inspect every building in the city at least once every three years. She also helped write new statutes allowing the city to clean up buildings where landlords fail to act quickly enough.

And for the last three years, she's battled Los Angeles landlord Lance Robbins. The case, she acknowledges, "has really consumed me." Working with city attorneys, she created a novel legal strategy that targeted all of Robbins' business practices at once rather than attacking a single housing code violation at a time. Saunders pored over housing records to identify all of his properties, which are hidden within a maze of shell companies.

"She has the tenacity to really go through each record and connect the dots," said Mirta Ocana, director of criminal filings for the Los Angeles Housing Department. "He should really fear her."

These days Saunders has cut down her hours a bit to spend more time with her 3- and 6-year-old children. No matter how often she goes to work these days, though, Ocana says she has already "helped more people than she can even imagine."

--Seth Stern '01

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