Low-income city-dwellers are struggling to hold on to their homes and neighborhoods—and many are losing the fight. Skadden Fellowship winner Akilah Browne aims to change that.
Akilah Browne believes that New York City belongs to everyone who lives there, whether rich or poor, new immigrants or longtime residents. And as the recipient of a prestigious Skadden Fellowship, she intends to fight for this right by helping make permanently affordable housing available to those who are losing their homes and communities to gentrification.
Browne, 29, spent her earliest years in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a historically low-income neighborhood that was dangerous at times but still felt like home. “We were three or four doors down from a crack house, but I was grateful to have a roof over my head,” she says. “I knew it was more than a lot of people had and I was still connected to many of my neighbors.”
Not that living there was easy. Landlords didn’t always provide the essentials, like adequate heat. “But when you find a place with low rent,” Browne says, “you stay there.”
A block that felt like family
When Browne was around 7 years old, she and her mother moved to an apartment in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, then a predominantly black, Latino, and lower-income neighborhood. They found an affordable two-bedroom apartment in a six-unit building, an oasis of stability during a chaotic period in Browne’s life, during which her mother moved out and her father moved in. Through it all, the neighborhood provided crucial support and security. “We would have block parties every summer, and my friends and I would spend three months practicing our dance routine to show off,” Browne recalls. “We were a community.”
Browne also benefited from another resource during those tough years: Legal Outreach, a legal-learning, college-prep program for young people from underserved urban communities that has partnered with Fordham Law since 2008. “They fast-tracked me and made it possible for me to get into the college that I did,” says Browne, who graduated summa cum laude from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “They also mentored me while I was dealing with my family issues and helped my father get full custody of me. They were my rock.”
A building dismantled
Yet even Legal Outreach couldn’t prevent the Brownes’ landlord from selling their building to a new owner, one who began forcing tenants out so he could raise the rent. Indeed, all around them, real estate speculators were buying up buildings, then offering low-income tenants small cash payouts to move out, or making life difficult for them by refusing to do repairs or even threatening eviction.
Browne’s father, Michael, dug in, but other tenants who felt more vulnerable—because they were behind in rent, for instance—began disappearing. Every time Browne came home for a visit from college, there would be another family gone. As people moved out, the landlord renovated the apartments “using cheap laminate flooring, cheap cupboards, cheap bathroom stuff,” Michael recalls. Then the owner rented the units out to young, single white tenants who paid three or four times as much.
“I didn’t ask enough questions—I don’t think anyone asked enough questions,” Browne says of what was
happening to her family home. “No one caught on until it was too late.”
Finally, in 2014, when Browne was 24 and had just moved out of her father’s apartment into a limited equity co-op (ironically, under a temporary affordable housing program), the landlord evicted Michael, the only remaining long-term tenant in what was once their building. “That rocked my world,” she says.
A lawyer before her time
By then, Browne was working as a pro bono coordinator at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. Instead of giving in to her feelings of helplessness, she turned to her pro bono network for guidance, including helping her father advocate for himself in court. Though he couldn’t keep their home of nearly 20 years, he was able to get a settlement from the landlord, one that helped him transition to a small studio in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights.
It wasn’t exactly a victory. Michael is now spending twice as much on rent, living paycheck to paycheck on his salary as a network technician for the New York City School Construction Authority. And Crown Heights, too, is gentrifying. “Sometimes it feels as if there is no Brooklyn anymore,” Michael says. “It has completely changed.”
Finding a passion
Meanwhile, Browne was galvanized to pursue a career in housing-justice law. In 2015, she enrolled in Fordham Law as an evening student while continuing to work full time at Cleary Gottlieb. She also found time to volunteer with the Legal Outreach program that had shaped her journey. Additionally, she began working with clinical associate professor Brian Glick, who founded the school’s Community Economic Development (CED) Clinic to fight for social justice in low-income communities and for low-wage workers. “I came to him and said, ‘I’m interested in affordable-housing work; is it possible for me to do this through the clinic?’ He connected me with mentors outside the school and enabled me to bring work directly into the clinic,” says Browne. “It’s a complete precursor to the work [I’ll be] doing for the [Skadden] Fellowship.”
Browne plans to focus on an innovative remedy for housing instability: nonprofit, tax-exempt corporations called Community Land Trusts (CLTs), which aim to offer permanently affordable housing that meets a community’s needs. While CLTs own, steward, develop, and manage land in trust for the public good, they also partner with neighborhood residents who sit on the board and retain a powerful voice in decisions. In addition, they set affordability restrictions for all property built on top of the land. Energized by support from the de Blasio administration, grassroots groups are now spearheading the development of more than a dozen new CLTs in all five boroughs of New York City, including in East Harlem, Inwood, Brownsville, Cypress Hills, and the South Bronx.
“CLTs aren’t the only solution,” says Browne, “but they’re one tool that hasn’t been tried enough in this city.” As a Skadden Fellow, Browne will work with New Economy Project (a public interest law organization that fights for economic justice for poor New Yorkers) providing legal support and advocacy for CLTs, including developing a legal curriculum to help CLT community and board members as well as other stakeholders understand their role and responsibilities.
For Browne, this next phase feels like a natural evolution. “Three years ago, Akilah was more focused on eviction defense; now she’s coming around to CLTs,” says Jennifer Kroman, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb who directs the firm’s pro bono practice and has supervised Browne for the past five years. “The change was organic, and it’s part of what the CED clinic at Fordham enabled her to do.”
What hasn’t changed is Browne’s steadfast commitment to ending housing insecurity in New York. “We need to be getting ahead of this issue for low-income communities, families on the brink of homelessness, immigrants who moved to the city with the hope of finding not just opportunity but a place that represents their culture—this is what New York City has provided for generations,” says Browne. “My friends have lost all hope in the city and some have chosen to leave,” she says. “Me, I’ve turned my frustration into action.”