When real estate attorney Taisha Sturdivant advises clients on affordable housing cases, she brings a unique perspective and is well aware of the importance of stable housing on an individual and a community’s well-being.
After losing her mother at a young age, Sturdivant, BC Law ’16, said she was orphaned as a child and bounced from house to house, growing up in dangerous sections of Dorchester and Roxbury. Familiar with the experiences of the communities served by affordable housing, Sturdivant said she connects with neighborhood leaders trying to preserve affordable housing on a personal level. Sturdivant was recently named a Massachusetts Real Estate Rising Star.
“In representing local community development corporations, I am often working alongside people who have had similar experiences to me, who have the same passions as me, and who often look like me,” Sturdivant said. “I think that there is a certain level of mutual respect that we have … to say we know that we have shared the same passions and that we are doing this work for the right reasons.”
And when advising clients on certain issues, Sturdivant’s experiences help her advocate for housing residents whose needs might otherwise be overlooked, she said.
“The lens that I have in terms of my own relatives needing to be relocated and some of their experiences, both negative and positive, has informed the way that I’m able to advise my clients,” Sturdivant said.
From time to time, Sturdivant said developers will have to briefly relocate their residents in order to refurbish existing housing. But Sturdivant describes the legal protections afforded to relocated residents as “bare-bones.”
To improve the conditions of relocated residents, Sturdivant said she often suggests that her developer clients consider the length and distance of relocations as well as the resources that developers can provide tenants with to ease their relocations.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in urban education in 2011 from Brandeis University in Waltham, Sturdivant enrolled at BC Law. Sturdivant said she initially expected she might become a criminal defense attorney or pursue a career related to litigation after completing internships during high school and college at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Once she began taking law classes, however, she said her prospects changed.
“In my first year of law school, I loved my property law class way more than I thought that I ever would,” Sturdivant said. “It was my favorite course, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of shocking.’”
Sturdivant said she greatly enjoyed her property law class that ultimately planted the seed that grew into her eventual career. Taking that class inspired her to consider her experiences growing up in affordable housing when choosing her area of practice.
The summer after her first year of law school, Sturdivant interned at the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, performing legal work on behalf of clients diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. Sturdivant said she primarily helped with landlord-tenant housing disputes, but while the work was important, it felt too narrowly focused and insufficient to counteract the broader housing crisis, she said.
At one point, Sturdivant said she defended a tenant facing eviction from a triple-decker home owned by a moderate-income landlord who relied on the rental income to pay the mortgage.
“I was fighting for a client, rightfully so, to stay in the housing, but also understanding that the longer they stayed in there not paying their rent on time, the more it was going to impact this gentleman who was just staying afloat,” Sturdivant said. “Something about it just felt too micro. It felt too much like triage.”
Hoping to find work in the affordable housing field on a larger scale, Sturdivant interned at the nonprofit organization Preservation of Affordable Housing the following summer. She said the organization identifies affordable housing in danger of being converted to market-rate rents and purchases the units to keep them affordable. During the internship, Sturdivant worked on large projects which she said was gratifying.
After graduating from BC Law, Sturdivant launched her career at a private law firm specializing in affordable housing. From a connection she made at Preservation of Affordable Housing, Sturdivant found her first job after law school at Klein Hornig LLP, representing nonprofit developers and community development corporations in the Boston area.
Sturdivant said she finds it invigorating to see her legal work manifested in brick and mortar, getting to walk around the neighborhood and see projects that she worked on—including Newcastle Saranac Apartments in the South End, a transaction which she said was particularly complex.
Sturdivant represented the Fenway Community Development Corporation’s purchase of the apartment complex, which saved the affordable housing from being converted into expensive market units.
Sturdivant said that affordable housing deals are particularly complex because they draw from so many different sources of funding—unlike commercial deals where one lender might finance the entire project.
“Having lived in the South End before, in affordable housing, I know how important it is to be in that kind of neighborhood where you have access to the T, Northeastern right next door, really good restaurants, and you’re just a jump from downtown,” Sturdivant said. “So it’s prime real estate, and I’m really glad that we were able to preserve the housing there.”
While Sturdivant enjoyed her day job at the private law firm, she said it drew her away from direct interaction with those members of her community in need of assistance. Missing the feeling of being directly involved with communities led Sturdivant to volunteer at nonprofits in her spare time.
“I try to balance my practice with making sure that I still understand some of the struggles that people are dealing with on a day to day,” Sturdivant said.
Sturdivant’s legal practice deals with high-level negotiations about affordable housing projects, but she said still wanted to engage with individuals facing the trials of housing insecurity.
Sturdivant said she volunteers as a board member for FamilyAid Boston, an organization with the mission of combatting homelessness by helping families find and maintain secure housing, according to its website. As a board member, she advises on the organization’s strategy, hiring, and financing.
“It’s one of the only organizations that’s not just focused on the homeless adults, but also is really focused on children and how children experience homelessness and trying to ensure that they don’t come back through the doors of our organization,” Sturdivant said.
She is also a board member for Housing Navigator Massachusetts, Inc., a recently launched database that catalogs the state’s affordable housing units, including information on affordable listings and waiting lists. Sturdivant said that the project fills a dire need, as people often struggle to search for available affordable housing. Since the site’s launch in August, Sturdivant said that Housing Navigator has amassed ample visits.
“I’ve had family members and friends reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re an affordable housing practitioner, can you help me find housing?’” Sturdivant said. “And I can say [is] ‘Well, I worked on this particular project, and at some point they’re probably going to lease up their units, but there are no assurances that you’re going to get in there, right?’”
Sturdivant currently works at Nolan Sheehan Patten, LLP, alongside Colette Irving, BC ’07 and BC Law ’14. Irving said she met Sturdivant over five years ago while networking. Over the years, Irving and Sturdivant stayed in touch and became close friends.
According to Irving, Sturdivant’s dedication to her legal work and community service is apparent through her commitment to supporting lower-income communities.
“She’s very committed to the community she grew up in, and she’s put a lot of effort and time into those public service endeavors,” Irving said.
In trying to balance a demanding job at a private law firm with two nonprofit board positions, Sturdivant describes herself as quite busy, so she is very careful to carve out time for herself by staying organized with her schedule. But, Sturdivant said her jobs are fulfilling, which keeps the long hours from feeling like a chore.
In addition to the gratification that Sturdivant said she gets from her work with affordable housing, she works for an organization geared toward students at the District of Massachusetts federal court. The district court runs the summer Nelson Fellowship for promising high school students and the Lindsay Fellowship for pre-law undergraduate students. Sturdivant participated in both fellowships, which the district court offers to talented young people facing socioeconomic hardship.
Sturdivant now returns to the district court over the summer to teach Lindsay fellowship students about legal research, writing, and the law school process in general. She said she sees the process as an opportunity to give back to a program that helped her tremendously. Sturdivant also said the Lindsay fellowship allows her to help bring more diverse perspectives to the legal profession.
“I do want to diversify the profession and make sure that the pipeline is full to the brim with people who just have different experiences from the folks who make up the vast majority of attorneys,” Sturdivant said.
She credited her undergraduate education, as well as the guidance of former Lindsay fellowship instructor and Boston University law professor Alexis Hamden as crucial to her success her first time teaching the program last summer.
For Sturdivant, her work in affordable housing and legal education is a long-term project. After only five years in affordable housing, Sturdivant still considers herself to be a new practitioner and hopes to become an expert in the field one day, she said. Sturdivant also said she feels drawn toward public policy work, attacking the affordable housing crisis on an even broader scale.
Through her work, Sturdivant said she hopes to help close the gap between the income needed to rent many affordable units and the income many families receive.
“There are a lot of people who are still struggling and who will continue to struggle because affordable housing as a practice doesn’t necessarily serve them yet, and that is gut wrenching,” Sturdivant said. “And I appreciate that because I worked on both sides, and because I come from a family that wouldn’t necessarily be able to even afford some of the affordable housing projects that I work on.”
According to Irving, Sturdivant is the type of attorney who can achieve great things in the field of affordable housing.
“She’s incredibly competent as a lawyer. She’s a really good lawyer and has exactly the right disposition when she’s working on deals. She’s very professional, very capable and really good at what she does,” Irving said.
Sturdivant said that she has dedicated her career to alleviating the housing crisis for the long haul.
“I lost my mom at a very young age,” Sturdivant said. “She was a single mother, so I was effectively orphaned as a child and I experienced housing instability. And I know how scary that was. I know how hard that was. And frankly, to the extent that I can ensure that other families and particularly children don’t experience that, I want to do it.”
Image Courtesy of Taisha Sturdivant