Native New Yorker Akilah Browne selected Fordham Law School to acquire the legal skills necessary to fight for a cause that is deeply personal to her: housing justice. Beginning in fall 2019, the 4L evening student will put her skills to use as a Skadden Fellowship recipient working with the New Economy Project to combat affordable housing instabilities in low-income communities such as the South Bronx and Washington Heights.
Over her two-year fellowship, Browne will play a major role in the New Economy Project’s support of community land trusts (CLTs), a community-centered planning model that allows local residents to take ownership of how their areas and homes are designed, operated, and re-sold. While hundreds of CLTs exist across America, New York has featured only one, in Cooper Square, until now. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing plan, calling for around 200,000 affordable housing units, means the moment is ripe for the tax-exempt CLTs, Browne explained.
The New Economy Project is co-leading the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI), which is hosting informational learning exchanges that will provide the foundation to launch CLTs. As a fellow with the New Economy Project, Browne will provide legal representation to the CLTs to help create the groundwork for permanent, democratically governed affordable housing in her hometown.
“It’s really an opportunity to make sure that, as New York City grows, its housing is permanently affordable, sustainable, and equitable for everyone,” Browne said. “That’s really important for me.”
The Skadden Foundation is paying for Browne to undertake her project proposal at the New Economy Project. Browne is the first Fordham Law student to receive the prestigious fellowship since Marni von Wilpert in 2011.
Browne’s desire to create sustainable affordable housing opportunities for her fellow New Yorkers derives from her own past and present experiences reaping the benefits of affordable housing—she and her husband, both from low-income backgrounds, are beneficiaries—and her up-close observations of the tribulations associated with housing instability. Her father was evicted from his Brooklyn apartment in which he lived for close to 20 years, despite consistently paying his $850 rent on time, because the new building owner decided to convert the rent-regulated property and charge market prices.
Affordable housing instability continues to permeate Browne’s social networks, she said, noting her mother-in-law, a public safety officer and longtime resident of Fort Greene, had to leave New York City for upstate New York in search of more permanent affordability. This address change has resulted in Browne’s mother-in-law moving further away from the community in which she raised her children and helped to keep safe during a time of disinvestment, in addition to increasing her commute time to work in the Bronx.
“Right now, there are people being pushed out, but I’m most concerned for the people in the margins who are not being protected by affordable housing,” Browne said, explaining that affordable housing is not being built for the city’s lowest income residents, thus increasing their fragility and hastening a path into homelessness. Decisions about who received housing stability in post-New Deal America have historically been rooted in racial discrimination, a fact that Browne discovered as a college student and that galvanized her interest in housing justice.
Browne has attended Fordham while working full-time as Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton’s senior pro bono specialist. In addition to her work and classes, Browne has served as student team coordinator for Fordham’s Community Economic Development Clinic, leading teams representing community development organizations in developing CLTs.
“I was able to learn a lot in a short time” about grassroots, community development advocacy and nonprofits, Browne said of the clinic. She credited Professor Brian Glick, the clinic’s supervisor, for supporting her interest in housing justice.
Many years before she attended Fordham Law, Browne participated as a teen in the Legal Outreach College Bound program, with which Fordham Law and its students regularly partner. These days, she hopes that her efforts will serve as an example for other current and future Fordham Law public interest students.
“I never saw my law degree as a means to make more money,” Browne said. “I saw my law degree as a means to advance justice.”