Albert A. Walsh Chair in Real Estate, Land Use, and Property Law
More than 50 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in urban areas. How are municipal governments dealing with the resultant social, economic, and environmental effects of this mass movement? With ingenuity, says Professor Nestor Davidson of Fordham Law. Local leaders are part of a growing movement of cities innovating across a range of policy areas, and they’re just getting started.
“In the United States, we’ve seen gridlock on major problems at the national level, whether it’s climate change or the refugee crisis,” says Davidson, the new Albert A. Walsh Chair in Real Estate, Land Use, and Property Law. “But to paraphrase Fiorello LaGuardia, cities have to take out the garbage, they have to be pragmatic. Where is climate change felt first? Cities. Where do immigrants go? Cities. These aren’t abstract issues to them. Cities have no choice but to deal with these problems.”
The rise of municipal governments as potential movers and shakers of national policy comes as no surprise to Davidson. As a leading scholar in the relatively young field of urban law, he’s followed the legal effects of urbanism’s rise for years. “We’re rapidly increasing the urban footprint across the planet,” he says. “As of roughly a decade ago, we’re now a majority-urban world for the first time in history, so the center of gravity is shifting to cities. So much of what’s been innovative in public policy has come from the bottom up through local government.”
Davidson came to urban law by way of property and housing, an expertise he began honing as a Harvard undergraduate writing about homelessness for his thesis. Following graduation, he worked on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, which led to a job as a legislative affairs staffer in the White House in 1992. After two years in Washington, he went to Columbia Law School. Law degree in hand in 1997, he first clerked on the D.C. Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court and then returned to the Clinton administration in its final year in the general counsel’s office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. When administrations changed, Davidson moved to work in commercial real estate and affordable housing at the firm of Latham and Watkins. This immersion into property law from the government side and private practice sparked deeper questions that he felt he could answer only as a scholar. “Housing was my gateway to academia,” he says.
Davidson taught and wrote at Colorado Law School for five years before taking a leave of absence in 2009 to work as deputy general counsel at HUD at the dawn of the Obama administration. After a year and a half, he was ready for academia again; he arrived at Fordham in 2011.
Unlike other urban law scholars, who tend to focus on specific legal areas such as land use, Davidson has explored the ways different types of law interact with one another in a city. “How does policing affect housing, and how does that in turn affect where parents decide to send their kids to school?” he asks. He has also compared how local governments as a whole differ from one another, which covers a lot of material, given the 90,000 local governments in the United States. Davidson takes an even broader view with The Legal Power of Cities: Global Perspectives in Urban Law, a book series he co-edits, which attracts legal scholars from around the world to engage with urban issues. Another book he’s co-editing, The Cambridge Handbook of the Law of the Sharing Economy, is designed to be the definitive legal look at the urban phenomenon of Uber, Lyft, AirBNB, and similar services.
Davidson takes on the Walsh chair as he steps down from a three-year run as associate dean for academic affairs. During his tenure in the role, he carved out time to write and organize events on affordable housing and social justice in cities for the Fordham Urban Law Center (which he founded and directs), but he had little time to teach. He looks forward now to getting back to the classroom. “I love the interaction, the back and forth, the light-bulb instant when you help students gain insights they didn’t have before,” he says. “That’s a satisfying moment.”