Wander the hallways of Bronx Housing Court, and you might just catch Jessica Reed (’07) shouting out the name of a law firm, trying to locate a landlord’s opposing counsel before locking into battle, and advocating for her client.
“Most of the negotiating and settling happens in the hallways. It’s an informal and somewhat combative practice,” says Reed, a staff attorney since 2009 at Bronx-based BOOM!Health, a community-based organization serving clients with AIDS and those who are HIV-positive or at-risk of infection.
“I represent people who are in need of representation but can’t afford it,” she says, particularly people who are suffering from chronic illness and poverty and who are living with poor housing conditions.
Reed also helps those who need to deal with the bureaucracy of the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) or who face obstacles in obtaining their benefits from the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA).
Among her clients: those facing eviction for non-payment or living with persistent conditions so miserable they have to sue their landlords for repairs. Most tenants have no legal representation and have no experience defending themselves against claims made on a landlord’s behalf by the opposing counsel.
“Sit in the hallway one morning, and you will see pro se tenants waiving most of their defenses,” Reed says, while the landlords do little to prove their side of the case. “More often than not, landlords’ records are incorrect, and there have been code-violating conditions in the apartment.”
Such conditions—no heat in the winter, no refrigerator, or structural defects, for example—Reed says, mean that an apartment has not been providing full value relative to its rent, which should be abated. Clients without legal representation, however, can find themselves hard-pressed to raise such issues with a landlord’s attorney.
“A tenant attorney’s mere appearance in a proceeding often halts the landlord’s counsel from strong-arming tenants into compromising positions,” she says.
One of Reed’s clients repeatedly complained of a leak in her bathroom to her building’s management, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). It went unheeded for so long that by the time she contacted BOOM!Health, the ceiling had collapsed, and water was leaking through a broken pipe from the apartment above.
“In order to use her own bathroom, she had to carry an umbrella inside,” Reed recounts. “Even with a court order, it took NYCHA a few weeks to show up to her apartment to repair the damage. The unfortunate truth is that it takes repeated advocacy to make basic things happen.”
CUNY School of Law helped prepare Reed for her career, arming her with the practical skills that many lawyers first learn on the job.
“It allowed me to grapple with theories and problems that matter to legal services practitioners, not just to academics,” she says.
At the same time, CUNY Law connected Reed to peers and alumni, crucial to an early legal career.
“At times, this career path can be brutal and discouraging. I often find myself relying on the wisdom, resilience, inspiration, and camaraderie of our community,” says Reed. “CUNY Law alums are some of my favorite people.”
– Paul Lin