Reflections from housing attorney Zafar Shah
December 12, 2022
For the past 11 years, Zafar Shah has served as an attorney in the Public Justice Center’s Human Right to Housing Project. We are grateful for his dedicated advocacy for housing justice and wish him all the best as he departs for a new role at Maryland Legal Aid. Zafar reflects on his time at the PJC:
It has been my habit to explain to the uninitiated that PJC is the perfect setting for a public interest lawyer. Virtually every tool is at your disposal. You have freedom to test limits. You are surrounded by comrades who share your single-minded focus on systemic change. I have also said more than once that to survive in this job, you have to accept being despised, on a daily basis. Landlords detest you. Opposing attorneys think you’re a fool. Judges see you as a hindrance (or at least an amusement). Invariably, you have a client who would prefer “a real attorney.” And your colleagues, busy as they are, might hardly notice you. You’d better have some fire in you if you want to last very long.
Somewhere between the pride and the self-loathing that adhere to this job, I figured out how to last, or in other words, how to be myself as an attorney – for 11 years. PJC has given me the opportunities I wanted and the ones I never saw coming. I have represented hundreds of tenants in Baltimore City and around the state. But I also had to try out different modes of lawyering: community lawyer, “rent court” expert, lobbyist, coalition leader.
At PJC, it is easy to forget your success – we move on quickly to the next challenge, but the Development team here asked me to recap my personal highlights over the past decade:
- I spent a considerable many nights with the Right to Housing Alliance, developing a “sword and shield” organizing-lawyering strategy around evictions. In those relationships with organizers and renters, we developed a case theory for a class action to stop fee churning and serial eviction filing. The case became Detrese Dowridge et al. v. Sage Management, LLC (2014), something of flare shot that helped light the way for similar cases, including the Maryland Attorney General’s recent success against Westminster Management, LLC. Detrese is now the lead organizer of Baltimore Renters United (BRU), a coalition I helped start in 2017.
- In those sword-and-shield days, I also represented Felicia Lockett, tenant association leader at the Bristol House building, in an eviction case, appeal, and remand. That effort gave us the Court of Appeals opinion Lockett v. Blue Ocean Bristol, LLC (2016), which fundamentally rejected the rental market practice of “deeming” any charge to a tenant as “rent.”
- Working with Right to Housing Alliance, I also spearheaded a survey and study of “rent court” in Baltimore City. This two-year effort produced the Justice Diverted report in 2015, a 2016 state bill to reform the eviction process, and an interim legislative study that resulted in compromise legislation and judicial reforms.
- My first local legislative campaign succeeded in expanding Baltimore City’s rental licensing requirements in 2018. This was BRU’s first campaign, as well. Someone asked me a few weeks ago, “Hey, I heard that you’re the one that wrote the provision prohibiting unlicensed landlord from charging rent, is that true?” Guilty as charged.
- My second local legislative effort was in a supportive role with the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition. Many policymakers did not understand how unaffordable water bills and uncorrected water bill errors could lead to evictions. We changed that, and we won the Water Accountability and Equity Act in 2019 (and additions in 2021).
- Maryland Matters declared that the Renters United Maryland (RUM) coalition was one of the “winners” of the 2022 state legislative session. I co-founded the coalition in 2017.
- As a RUM leader, I was attacked by adversary lobbyists, who lost their bogus ethics complaint against me. It was annoying but also quite a compliment. (Maybe it counts as “Rising Star” award?)
- Nothing tops the development of RUM and the wins for renters and families over the past few years. The success of right to counsel in evictions really belongs to others, but I stake a claim to the run-up to that success, building a policy window, developing the relationships. I also savor the smaller stuff, such as winning a 10-day notice in non-payment eviction cases, a 60-day notice of lease termination (or 90 depending on the facts!), the removal of the bar on contesting invalid lead inspection certificates in non-payment eviction trials, the right to access master meter utility records at multi-family buildings, and the requirement on the state to report eviction data publicly.
- A judge once declared, from the bench, that I was “a stain” on my profession because I had objected to the plaintiff’s introduction of facts not in evidence during their closing argument. Not all stains are bad.
- A delegate once declared that if they were walking down a dark alley, there’s no one they’d rather have by their side but me. And one other colleague.
- A client, early on, told me on our way out of the court building, after we had won a money judgment against their out-of-towner landlord: “When we first met, I thought you were kind of quiet, but now I see, you’re spicy!”
But the take-away is not that there’s something special about all this. Public Justice Center makes great advocates out of all of us. When I came aboard Public Justice Center in 2011, I had never had an attorney job. About once a week on average, I have wondered whether I deserved it. Can I pull this off? was question that bounced around my head whenever I prepped an argument or sped down the freeway to Annapolis. What I learned in this PJC community is that when we collectively share the commitment to build a just society, any one of us can take on that challenge and, win or lose, achieve something beyond what we perceived as within our individual ability.
I thank my comrades for their teachings, acceptance, and resolve. And our clients and supporters, I thank you for continuing to make this amazing and necessary place possible.