Haverford Conversation: Rachel Jaffe '99
Rachel Jaffe ’99 characterizes herself as a public interest attorney. Working as a Community Economic Development staff attorney with Housing Conservation Coordinators, Inc. (HCC) in Manhattan, she focuses on transactional work, including eminent domain relocations, limited-equity co-op law, not-for-profit corporate law, estates law, elder law, administrative law and a number of other non-litigation matters, especially related to housing. In addition, Rachel is a principal with Urban Anew LLC, which invests in small-scale, residential real estate development projects in Brooklyn. In 1999, she graduated from Haverford with a degree in the Growth & Structure of Cities. Rachel graduated from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in 2006, after earning a master’s in urban planning from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 2003.
Carrie Boyd '03 interviewed Jaffe for the most recent newsletter of the Haverford College Lawyers Network.
CB: Have you always had an interest in urban planning and real estate development?
RJ: I knew I was interested in the built environment when I started at Haverford, but I didn’t know whether to pursue architecture or something else. During the master’s program, I discovered that it is hard to practice urban planning in the United States. Since Robert Moses, no one has done such large-scale development and actually been at the helm of the decision-making process.
While I criticize Moses’s displacement of thousands of people to effectuate his grand plans, the productivity of planning and development in the early- to mid-20th century highlights the almost paralyzing disconnect between planning, building and decision-making in the U.S. today. Most communities are planned with real estate developers and their lawyers. The planners take on some of the design tasks and help to inform policy decisions, but they do not seem to have as much influence.
Several of my master’s degree colleagues ended up practicing urban planning abroad, working for development companies and non-governmental organizations in South America and Europe. I wanted to stay in the U.S. and worked for the government briefly at the National Capital Planning Commission doing security-related urban planning in Washington, D.C. post 9/11 and for a non-profit organization, Scenic Hudson, doing work related to the redevelopment/gentrification of small towns along the Hudson River Valley. I noticed that in both situations the lawyers and real estate developers made most of the major decisions, with the planners playing an ancillary role in the development process. I wanted more of a leadership role. Thus, I decided to go to law school.
CB: Can you explain why you find the public interest aspect of your job so important?
RJ: Having been involved in community service during high school, I organized the Haverford Habitat for Humanity project (thanks to funding from Eighth Dimension). I remember working on Saturdays renovating existing houses in Philadelphia. Creating a living space is such an instant improvement for people and sets a stage for other positive things to happen in their lives.
After Haverford, I worked for a non-profit called the Studio Theatre with Haverford graduate, Morey Epstein ’80, as my boss. The Theatre has been a mainstay in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. for 35 years; its presence helped to revitalize the neighborhood after years of abandonment catalyzed by the 1960s race riots. The theater’s vitality helped to stabilize and ultimately reinvigorate a struggling community.
Through my work there, I confirmed my interests in urban community preservation. Now my clients are the working poor—people who work and still cannot make ends meet—in New York City. HCC’s public interest law practice is extremely satisfying. Housing is something everybody needs and, without it, neighborhoods and families fall apart.
During law school, I worked in a private law firm‘s real estate group. I did not feel as satisfied at the end of the day, even though I did get to work on some mega-budget, large-scale urban development projects. I feel good about my work now. I have the opportunity to do things that are interesting to me, game-changing in the lives of others and helpful to the city as a whole.
A large part of my case load is preserving New York City’s limited equity co-ops. Starting in the 1970s, the city recovered a lot of dilapidated rental apartment buildings from absentee owners failing to pay property taxes. The city did not want to be a landlord and sold the buildings to the existing tenants for cheap, i.e., $250/month for an entire apartment, as part of a program that created co-ops as affordable homeownership opportunities (called HDFCs or Housing Development Fund Corporations). This housing stock is supposed to remain affordable as outlined in the co-ops’ governance documents, but a lot of fraud exists, stemming from attempts by some shareholders to sell the co-op apartments for market prices to make enormous profits. These HDFC co-ops retain their low maintenance fees because they are highly subsidized by New York City property tax abatements and have fewer capital improvement costs, since the city delivered the buildings to the tenants already renovated.These co-ops constitute the only opportunity for many of my clients to own housing in Manhattan.
I also work on tenant relocations triggered by eminent domain—whole blocks on Manhattan’s west side being taken by the government on behalf of private developers for “public use” projects. Subjects covered in constitutional law cases such as Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005) have appeared repeatedly in real-life applications during my time at HCC. Kelo was a hot topic while I was in law school, and I published two articles on the types of quandaries raised by the case and its discussion of comprehensive redevelopment plans (an important urban planning topic). Seeing how the realities of eminent domain play out in my day-to-day practice is exciting.
CB: What is a typical day like for you?
RJ: Although it’s an expensive city, I think that it’s possible to have a great legal career in Manhattan and not have to work at a law firm. I periodically get to sit across the table from New York state senators, City Council members and higher-ups in New York City and state government agencies (Department of City Planning, Housing Preservation and Development, New York State Homes and Community Renewal). I have negotiated relocations and buy-outs with partners from prestigious law firms. I would probably not have gotten these opportunities as a young associate at a big firm.
My office has fairly flexible work arrangements. I come to my office by 10 a.m., or sometimes I login remotely to work from home. I see clients some afternoons, either in my office or in their homes. On an occasional evening I might meet community groups when HCC is advocating for housing policy changes or protesting the lack of affordable housing in a particular large-scale development project. I also periodically volunteer at our Monday night legal clinic, open to any New Yorkers with simple legal questions. My case load is large, but with careful organization, I usually manage my time so I that I don’t have to work late nights or on weekends. This has helped me create balance in my personal life; I am able to spend nights and weekends with my husband and two-year-old daughter.
I have taken CLEs in other areas of law, such as elder law and estates law. I am able to bring these new skills to my practice (sometimes with pro bono support from members of the private bar until I have developed the requisite skills to handle issues on my own). HCC’s support of my new skills development allows us as a community-based organization to effectively respond to our neighborhood’s shifting civil legal service needs. In particular, we have noticed the Hell’s Kitchen population is aging in place, and in response we have been able to expand our elder law and estates practices because of my office’s support of my willingness to explore new areas of the law.
CB: How has Haverford influenced your career?
RJ: At Haverford, I didn’t really have a career plan. I had an interest in urbanism, and Bryn Mawr Professor Emeritus Barbara Miller Lane was my thesis advisor and really inspired my continued interest in housing. Notably, my supervising attorney and the Director of Legal Services at HCC is another Haverford graduate, Aurore DeCarlo ’98. I contacted her while working for a private real estate developer after law school and the timing worked for me to join HCC. She and I have similar backgrounds (law and urban planning degrees).
I love the working environment Aurore has created for HCC attorneys; intelligence, motivation, kindness, fairness, cooperation and collective responsibility are rewarded. I have repeatedly reached out to Haverford alums since graduating and have always been met with unconditional support, a figurative embrace and useful, practical advice—and twice, a job offer!
I certainly didn’t realize when I graduated from Haverford that I would be a lawyer in Manhattan. Perhaps my path to HCC was not the most efficient (I could have attended law school sooner and considered a combined urban planning/law program to cut out a year of school), but I am pleased with my public interest law career. My job combines many of my interests—housing, neighborhood preservation, opportunities for active decision-making and making a long-term, positive impact on society.
About the author: Carrie Boyd '03, a graduate of William & Mary School of Law, clerked on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and worked as an associate at Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler in Baltimore. She aims to become a public interest attorney or to start her own law practice.