Daniel Lewis L’20 is the recipient of a University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Catalyst Fellowship and is working at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles.
Q: Tell us about your fellowship, including where you’re working, the problems that you’re responding to, and the goals of your project.
A: I am working at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles helping low-income homeowners who have been harmed by a government-sponsored predatory lending program called Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE). PACE loans provide financing for green-energy home improvements but are repaid through the homeowner’s property taxes and secured by a first-priority lien on their home. As a result, any issues with PACE loans directly imperil the borrower’s homeownership.
Lack of oversight in the program has led to many issues, including inappropriately large loans, misrepresentations about loan terms and the property tax repayment structure, shoddy workmanship on home improvements, forged financing documents, and a litany of other things that combine to sap hard-earned equity from low-income homeowners. So far, PACE has largely failed to deliver on its promises of a green energy future and has instead put scores of California homeowners in danger of losing their homes.
My fellowship consists of (1) representing borrowers of PACE loans whose homeownership is now in jeopardy because of the program and (2) pushing for policy changes, such as increased consumer protections and remedies for homeowners, at a local and state-wide level. While there has been progress on these fronts, legal services are still overwhelmed by the number of homeowners who need help.
Q: How did your experiences before and during law school lead you to this project or public interest generally?
A: The Law School’s robust public interest program and extensive connections in the field helped make public interest law an easy choice for me. Through clinics and classes with leaders of public interest organizations in Philadelphia, I received invaluable guidance and mentorship and developed the skills I use in my job every day. I was also able to explore unbelievable opportunities in a variety of different public interest fields, which allowed me to test my interests and find the right path for my career.
I found my current fellowship because of my interest in consumer homeownership issues, which I developed later in law school. During my 2L summer, I interned for the Consumer Housing Unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA), where I advocated for people who had been victimized by complex homeownership schemes and lending products. My summer at PLA introduced me to some of the same homeownership issues that I am tackling in my current fellowship.
I also volunteered with my current team at Bet Tzedek through Penn’s public interest capstone class during my 3L year. As part of that project, I developed self-help materials for homeowners that we still distribute to people who need guidance with filing complaints to government agencies. My work on that project also required me to familiarize myself with PACE, which helped me hit the ground running once I began the fellowship.
Q: Thus far, what accomplishment during your fellowship are you most proud of?
A: PACE is an extremely complex and confusing financing scheme that has befuddled everyone who has come into contact with it, including advocates, homeowners, and public officials. Public and private actors involved pass the buck between themselves and refuse to take responsibility for bad loans, which means that it can be difficult to figure out where remedies exist. The remedies that do exist are also not easy to find, navigate, or obtain.
Homeowners frequently call Bet Tzedek exasperated with PACE, feeling defrauded by the program and with no idea what to do or how to make sense of their situation. The most fulfilling part of my job has been speaking with these homeowners and helping them navigate this byzantine and opaque financing scheme. Frequently, we are able to help homeowners negotiate with the parties who harmed them or advocate for them before responsible entities and help them share their story. However, I have found that even when we aren’t able to represent someone individually, we can help by listening to their story, validating their concerns with PACE, and providing information and tools about next steps they can take. In that way, I can still serve as a guidepost in an otherwise murky landscape.