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Advocating Fair Housing

December 19, 2023

headshot of Rebecca Orton
Rebecca Orton

Rebecca Orton L’22 is a 2022-2023 Catalyst Fellow and housing attorney with a previous career in theatre for social change.

As a University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Catalyst Fellow, I partnered with Colorado Poverty Law Project (CPLP) to represent low-income tenants. My case work as a housing attorney includes eviction defense and affirmative litigation against landlords who violated fair housing laws, failed to maintain the warranty of habitability, or conducted illegal “self-help” evictions.

I have continued to work at CPLP as a staff attorney since the end of my fellowship, and I remain energized to continue this work.

The Path to Public Interest Lawyering

Prior to attending Penn Carey Law, I spent a decade working with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC to produce original, interactive plays with communities fighting injustice about their real stories. Most of my work took place in shelters, after-school programs, and alternative-to-incarceration programs in New York City. I heard the same stories over and over about housing insecurity and a lack of tenant protections. I decided to pursue law school so that I could do more to address these underlying problems.

At Penn Carey Law, I pursued experiences that would prepare me for direct client work, like the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic and an extended internship in the Housing Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Both experiences allowed me to practice representing clients under the supervision of thoughtful, supportive attorneys.

I also focused on classes and professors that expanded my substantive knowledge, and my daily work at CPLP provides ample opportunity to apply the concepts I learned while in law school. I have often revisited what I learned in “Disability Law” with Professor of Law Jasmine E. Harris, when representing tenants with disabilities. Similarly, taking “Reproductive Rights and Justice” with Dorothy E. Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights, expanded my thinking about how racism and poverty affect my clients and their families.

Securing Protections for Tenants in Colorado

I quickly learned a lot about Colorado’s landlord-tenant law through a large caseload of direct representation of tenants at a time when Colorado saw record-breaking numbers of eviction case filings. This coincided with proactive work to increase CPLP’s presence at in-court clinics. I was part of expanding CPLP’s fair housing work and have attended community events to speaking with people about how CPLP helps tenants. I have dedicated substantial effort to one especially complicated affirmative case scheduled for a jury trial. This case continues to stretch my skills as a new lawyer, and I have relied heavily on the wisdom and advice of my more experienced colleagues at CPLP.

Direct representation often highlights the limitations of the law in practice. CPLP’s policy program, under the leadership of Jack Regenbogen L’15, helps connect the dots by allowing CPLP attorneys and staff to help shape new legislation with the goal of reducing or eliminating barriers for our clients for the future. I had the opportunity to engage in policy advocacy on behalf of two bills that CPLP supported in the 2023 legislative cycle. I gave testimony before the Colorado Legislature Committee on Transportation, Housing, and Local Government and, later, served as a lobby captain for a day of action at the State Capitol led by CPLP’s partners at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. I look forward to continuing to apply what I learn through my clients to future changes in law and policy.

Pathways to the Profession highlights Penn Carey Law students and post-graduate fellows as they launch impactful legal careers. From summer internships in the private sector to public interest post-graduate fellowships and externships, these firsthand accounts of substantive legal work demonstrate the myriad opportunities available to Penn Carey Law students and graduates.

Penn Carey Law’s Catalyst Fellowships support students who obtain unpaid postgraduate positions that may lead to full-time staff positions or related employment in government, non-profit, or international non-governmental organizations.