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On May 12, Columbia University announced a new partnership that will bring free legal services to tenants in Community Board 9. The university has allocated $300,000 over three years to fund an alliance between Columbia Law School and Harlem Legal Services, a program of Legal Services for New York City (LSNY).

The money will primarily finance the work of the project’s attorney, Mary McCune, to protect the tenancy of long term, low-income residents of West Harlem. McCune is currently a staff attorney for the Bronx AIDS Services Legal Advocacy Program and has two decades of experience in tenant advocacy. Students from Columbia Law School will assist McCune with what is expected to be a 40-client caseload.

“Columbia is responding to community leaders who say there is a need for legal resources for local residents in the face of gentrification in the area,” said Ellen Chapnick, dean for Social Justice Initiatives at Columbia Law School.

The collaboration comes at a time of heated debate between community representatives and Columbia over the university’s planned use of eminent domain to expand its campus. However, there appears to be little concern that there could be a conflict of interest arising from the landlord financing its tenants’ attorney.

“They did this out of their own generosity, and that’s all there is to it,” said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of Community Board 9 and a staunch opponent of the use of eminent domain in the proposed expansion. “That however doesn’t take anything away from negotiations with the board and Columbia. Every issue stands on its own. It’s a very complicated relationship,” he said.

Chapnick agrees. “One of the conditions of the grant, which has actually been instituted by Columbia, is that if clients of LSNY have a problem with Columbia as a landlord, then LSNY should zealously advocate for their client,” she said.

But not everyone is thrilled with the arrangement. Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC), an independent advocacy group, had also been in the running for the contract. Ken Rosenfeld, director of legal services for NMIC, said that Columbia approached him approximately a year ago to discuss the possibility of a collaboration.

Rosenfeld estimated that a serious challenge to gentrification in the area would require a local, community-based office, two attorneys and a paralegal/community organizer for outreach and tenant organizing. His estimate was $250,000 per year over five years. His bid was turned down without further negotiation last fall.

“The pressures for displacement and gentrification on the community surrounding this area are tremendous,” said Rosenfeld. “This amount of money is simply inadequate to the task.”

Overall, Montblanc and others say they’re pleased that Columbia took the initiative to protect tenants. “I have had many confrontations with Columbia over the 18 months I have been chair,” said Montblanc. “No one is totally good and no one is totally evil.”

—Dan Bell

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