Campus & Community

Law School students lend a legal hand

6 min read

Door-to-door canvassers protect vulnerable tenants

On a bright May afternoon, two third-year Harvard Law School students set out on one of their regular visits to Dorchester and Mattapan. They are a slightly odd couple: Nick Hartigan, an intense, fast-talking 225-pound former running back, and David Haller, a laid-back native of Arkansas, with a slow Southern drawl. But they have been drawn together on a mission of hope. For the past nine months, the students have been driving through Boston neighborhoods in a car bought on Craigslist, offering to use their legal skills to help families stay in their homes and fight foreclosure.

“Nothing good can happen in a vacant home,” said Hartigan. “The problem is not just for the people who are getting kicked out of these homes, it’s for those who live on the same street whose property value also drops. You can’t refinance, and if you want to sell your home, you are not going to be able to.”

The banter on the trip from the Cambridge campus to Boston is like that of an old married couple. “I’m trying to keep the car nice and you don’t clean up after anything,” complained Hartigan to Haller, who was about to peel an orange in Hartigan’s 2002 Lincoln Continental, which periodically punctuated the conversation with a loud thumping noise from the undercarriage.

But when the topic turns to the wave of foreclosures across the nation, this odd couple is of one mind.

The pair are part of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a student-operated organization created in 1913 to provide legal services and representation to those unable to afford it. One of the bureau’s four areas of specialization is housing law. As part of Hartigan and Haller’s weekly work with the bureau, they attend housing court, and each has several clients that they represent in a variety of housing court claims. And not long ago, the two came up with an effective, hands-on way to help more tenants in jeopardy —the students knock on one door at a time and explain to tenants their legal rights.

“The people we talk to need just a little bit of help; they are on the cusp of doing really well, having their kids go to schools, and having good things happen, and all of a sudden the rug is taken out from under them. … That is a big blow,” said Hartigan. “It’s just a decision by people who have a ton of money that these people, who don’t have a lot of money, aren’t worth the time. It just seemed so unfair.”

The problem, explained Haller, is with bankers who want to vacate the premises so they can board up a property until they can find a new buyer. They send representatives to tell the tenants they have to move out by the end of the month and offer them money as an incentive to leave. Often the tenants, who don’t know their rights, think the “cash for keys” offer is the only option and accept the deal.

Before they came up with their canvassing idea, Haller and Hartigan were having modest success in the courtroom aiding tenants in need. But they wanted to reach more than just the handful of people they were able to help each week. The explosion of bank foreclosures made the choice an easy one.

“We were looking for a way to provide some level of service to a lot more people,” said Haller.

In advance of the actual canvassing, they teamed up with the WilmerHale Legal Services Center and Greater Boston Legal Services and created a foreclosure task force, visiting the five Boston housing courts each week, identifying candidates they could help, offering them advice and information, and running a special legal clinic every Friday. But they wanted to do still more.

A massive canvassing effort seemed the best way to reach as many people as possible. Last September, they visited other institutions in the Boston area, recruiting undergraduates at 11 local colleges, universities, and law schools to be part of their team. They named their program “No One Leaves.”

The process is simple: Each week, banks are required to list the properties being foreclosed upon in the Boston-based business paper Banker & Tradesman. The pair, with help from their technology expert and graduating Law School student Tony Borich, take the listings from the paper, create a spreadsheet, enter it into Google maps, divide up the properties among their volunteer corps, and start making house calls.

The figures are dire. As the battered U.S. economy tries to regain its footing, thousands of new foreclosures are reported daily across the nation. According to the Warren Group, a Boston-based company that records real estate data from New England and publishes Banker & Tradesman, more than 12,000 homes were foreclosed on in Massachusetts in 2008.

Wearing matching red T-shirts with “No One Leaves” on the back, the legal eagles encourage tenants to attend a weekly meeting organized by the group CityLife, a community outreach program located in Jamaica Plain.

“No One Leaves” has recently been recognized by the Law School as a formal club, and has received funding. In addition, a group of eight current Harvard Law students have agreed to take over the program for next year. Hartigan and Haller hope that with some luck, it might even be expanded statewide.

On their recent trip to Boston, the pair tried to convince a couple with four children that they should fight for their home.

“We’ve got four kids; they kick us out; we are on the street,” said the young father from the porch of his rented house in Dorchester. “Who is going to rent us a place?” he asked. “No one.”

“I would not go out without a fight,” said Haller.

“It’s a long fight,” added Hartigan, “before you would ever have to leave.”

The husband, who was initially worried they were asking for money, warmed quickly to the likeable pair. While his wife was more skeptical, a passing car helped Hartigan and Haller’s cause as the driver waved and yelled, “No One Leaves!” out the window.

“That was Lee,” said Haller, “another client we were able to help.”

Their sense of humor and close bond help them through the rough spots. On this day, in particular, they needed a little lightness. Several of the homes they attempted to visit were completely boarded up, a sign that a bank representative had arrived ahead of them and persuaded the tenants to move out.

“This is a hell of a bad run,” said Hartigan with a disappointed sigh, as they reviewed the list of properties that were now vacant.

But their work has yielded many successes.

They point to the near-capacity CityLife meetings that take place on a weekly basis, and the growing list of their own clients who have managed to stay in their homes.

“It’s a very tough spot for a lot of people,” said Hartigan. “All we are trying to do is find some sort of outlet for both owners and tenants — so they can try to find some sort of way through this.”