Bar Bulletin

July, 2004

"Advocate Secures Safe Home for the Elderly"
By Sharon E. Goldsmith

Of the many problems plaguing low-income housing developments, safety is typically a top concern. For the more than 120 limited-income tenants (many of whom are elderly or disabled) living in Section 8 housing units in the Sandtown-Winchester community of Baltimore City, it was paramount.

Problems with the building first came to light when the Tenants’ Association of Harvey Johnson Towers contacted the Community Law Center (CLC) with complaints of unsafe living conditions. CLC lawyers noted that drug dealers had taken over the building; elderly tenants had been robbed and raped, and the management had replaced professional security personnel with disabled and visually-impaired security guards. The management company had also terminated services for maintenance, trash removal and cleaning, and the entire facility had become in such disrepair that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) deemed its condition “unsatisfactory.”

Working on a pro bono basis as a volunteer for the Community Law Center, Piper Rudnick associate Elizabeth M. Walsh represented a group of seven tenants who filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against the owner and management of the property, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. Walsh was asked to enter the case after months of unsuccessful attempts by CLC and the Tenants’ Association to negotiate with the management company.

Walsh initially made several Freedom of Information Act requests to federal, state and city housing departments with the objective of bringing attention to the decline of the building as well as to develop a case against prospective defendants. She also met with a number of stakeholders, including management, the local police precinct and community activists. After much effort, in mid-2003 HUD made it a condition of the building’s refinancing that the property owners dedicate part of the rent proceeds to building security. By that fall, the property owners hired a replacement property manager, and the condition of the building began to improve. Even so, the property owners continued to deny liability and refused to provide security personnel. Finally, Walsh successfully negotiated important improvements for the Harvey Johnson Towers tenants that reinstated security services for the tenants and formalized the timing and duration of the security. The negotiations also resulted in 24-hour recorded surveillance cameras, individual emergency alerts and proper lease enforcement. In November 2003, professional security guards resumed patrol of Harvey Johnson Towers seven days a week for at least eight hours a day.

One of the initial obstacles to Walsh’s representation was the fear of the tenants to speak out and join in the lawsuit. The fear of reprisal may have been justified as Walsh is now involved in a related case, defending one of the seven Harvey Johnson Towers plaintiffs, who is alleged to be the target of a retaliatory eviction.

Barbara Breslau, Director of the Pro Bono Project for the Community Law Center, describes Walsh as tenacious and compassionate. Furthermore, she explains, “The dramatic improvement in the lives of these poor, underrepresented people could not have happened without the courage and tenacity of Liz Walsh. In late 2003, moreover, Liz embarked on a second case related to Harvey Johnson Towers…She has embarked on this new case with the same enthusiasm and skill she displayed in the first matter.” Walsh exemplifies the character and commitment to equal justice of volunteer attorneys making a difference in our communities every day.

Sharon E. Goldsmith is Executive Director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: July, 2004

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