Public interest law provides all kinds of opportunities to do research and training, but the experience that really showed me the power and importance of public interest work was when a woman called in seeking help with troublesome neighbors.
Through counseling the client on her fair housing rights, we found out that she had had a Section 8 voucher that had expired. She was a single mom with a disability who had the foresight to get herself on the Section 8 waitlist when she was just 18 years old. She had been on the voucher waitlist for over 12 years. When she got her voucher, she was thrilled because she really wanted to move her children away from neighbors who harassed them. How could she have anticipated a housing market in crisis where there were scant apartments available for rent, let alone units for which the landlord would be willing to accept her voucher?
Though she tried, she hadn’t leased up her voucher before it expired. She went to the housing authority and submitted paperwork to extend it, only to discover months later that she had no voucher. The housing authority said it lost her paperwork and then sent her a termination notice. Her voucher was gone. It seemed so wrong. After gathering the facts and conducting the research, I wrote a demand to the housing authority for the client’s voucher be reinstated and extended, based on both procedural violations and the client’s fair housing rights. My letter worked. The voucher was reinstated.
In some ways, it didn’t seem like a big deal. It was only a letter. But as I talked with other lawyers in our office, I began to appreciate the power we public interest attorneys have. When we take cases that no one else will, we can end up saving someone’s housing, helping them access health care, or obtaining special education services for them. In this case, a client who had tried to advocate for herself had not been heard, but when I wrote the demand letter and negotiated with the housing authority, her rights were protected and her voice was heard. My work made a real difference in this client’s life and the life of her family.