“I specifically came to law school with a very targeted mission,” said Independence Fellow Lauren Davis L’21, “I was really interested in attacking poverty from multiple angles by doing direct client services, policy advocacy, and community education. I thought Community Legal Services (CLS)’s model of attacking poverty from those three angles was really effective and would help me toward my goals.”
Lauren began working at CLS in Philadelphia as a paralegal shortly after graduating from college, and it was the organization’s multi-pronged approach to reducing harm caused by poverty that ultimately inspired Lauren to attend law school. For Lauren, providing legal services to tenants whose housing is threatened not only serves to ensure that they have safe and healthy homes, but it also constitutes an effective way to address poverty as a whole, as living in unstable or unhabitable housing tends to spur other complications in a person’s life.
Lauren is one of 18 University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School 2021 graduates who have received fellowships to pursue work in civil service organizations, government entities, and non-profit advocacy organizations following their graduation. Supporting their work aligns with the Law School’s mission to assist students who choose to dedicate their careers to serving the public interest.
The Law School’s influence
Lauren credits her participation in a range of experiential and social learning opportunities to helping her to grow as a poverty law advocate. As a student, Lauren was drawn to the Tenant Power Project, which is a relatively new project created within Penn’s National Lawyers Guild chapter and directed specifically at engaging in advocacy for renters.
She also participated in Penn’s Walk-in Legal Assistance Project, Civil Practice Clinic, and Transnational Clinic and completed two internships with medical-legal partnerships. Through these experiences, Lauren came to recognize that the stability and habitability of a person’s home bears an intrinsic connection to countless other aspects of their well-being. When a low-income person’s housing is unstable or unhabitable, a variety of other issues caused by poverty often compound.
“If you don’t have stable housing, then you might not be able to get your public benefits delivered, because the welfare office can’t find you, and then they turn off your benefits. If you’re in poor housing, you might end up in the hospital more often and then have lots of high medical bills. Having proper utilities is connected to stable housing as well,” Lauren said. “When I came to Penn, I felt like I could see the intersections between lots of different issues better. The more I can focus on multiple intersecting issues at once, the better. I think that my project will do that because it’s not just housing; it’s really connected to health and to societal issues of our city.”
In addition to honing practical skills, such as how to file injunctions and represent a client in court, Lauren’s clinical and internship experiences helped her to develop a broader sense of what it means to be a good lawyer. At Penn, she learned how to center a clients’ needs and agency in representation, how to assist community advocates while ensuring they remain empowered as leaders in movement work, and how to feel more comfortable asking questions – all of which she will implement in her role as an Independence Fellow at CLS.
“Everyone deserves to have their basic needs met. In terms of four walls, safe and healthy housing can determine so much,” Lauren said in anticipation of her upcoming work as an Independence Fellow.
During her fellowship, Lauren anticipates engaging in some defensive litigation on behalf of clients whose landlords file for eviction, but she will primarily focus on affirmative work to prevent those situations from happening by helping clients whose landlords refuse to make home repairs, change the locks, or act in other ways that effectively serve to push clients out of their homes. Simultaneously, Lauren will compile what she learns into a toolkit that other housing advocates can use when bringing affirmative litigation on behalf of clients who may face similar issues.
“There are so few landlord-tenant attorneys focusing on affirmative litigation in Philly,” said Lauren. “The toolkit will lay out procedures for other people to follow. I want to do work around standardizing things so that others can more easily figure out what to do and, hopefully, there will be more affirmative cases in the city.”
Lauren underscored that her work in helping low-income people stabilize their housing will have a significant effect on communities, such as communities of color and Black women specifically, who often face discrimination. Looking forward to her fellowship, Lauren noted that she is excited both to build connections with clients and community organizations and to work together toward achieving comprehensive change.
“The issue that I’m going to be working on definitely impacts Black women, who are often single heads of their households, and also based on a number of factors find it harder to rent and to have safe and healthy housing,” Lauren said. “The main thing I’m looking forward to is working with clients, who I can connect with on some level, toward a safer and more habitable Philadelphia that is accessible to the largest group possible. I’m looking forward to learning from and working alongside community groups who are already doing great work and to using whatever legal skills that I can to help make things better.”