"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
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.