A Legal Advocate for Social Justice
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Published: April 13, 2009
A lawyer for the dispossessed ó tenants in neglected
buildings in the Bronx, auto shops in Willets
Point fighting city eviction, credit-card holders dunned by debt buyers, and
Chinese-food delivery workers and nannies demanding, at least, minimum wage ó
thatís Harvey Epstein. As community development director at the Urban Justice Center
in the financial district, Mr. Epstein, 42, who has 20 years in social
causes, leads a staff of 20 lawyers, paralegals and researchers who provide
free counsel to groups helping low-income people with legal problems.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Harvey Epstein, the community development director at
the Urban Justice Center.
The roots of activism: I had a social studies
degree from Ithaca
College, but teaching jobs
were hard to come by. I got a job running a homeless shelter in Hempstead, Long Island. After a year, it was burned down ó by one
of the residents, unfortunately. I worked for a foster care agency in the South Bronx. That was not for me. I didnít have the
skill set. I was overwhelmed by the system. I saw lawyers all the time who could really help people. I went to CUNY Law School in Flushing
and started working at Queens Legal Services, then Legal Aid. Instead of
helping one family not get evicted, I would use lawyering
as an aggressive tool to help the lives of low-income people.
Office dťcor: Thatís a photo of Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr., who has a photo of Gandhi behind him. Thatís me on a front page of
The Daily News at a rally to renew the rent laws in 1997. I got good coverage
Behind the battles over housing: These companies
bought buildings for way too much. Now theyíre trying to push out
rent-regulated tenants. Some property owners are walking away, but some are
trying to upgrade their buildings. We can help them figure out what kind of government programs are available.
Other issues: Some baby sitters get $2 an hour.
Some immigrants from the Philippines
work 50 and 60 hours a week and still donít make the $7.15 minimum wage. No
overtime if they work more than 40 hours. Weíre also doing debt-defense
against predatory lending practices. Maybe you charged $200 on a Macyís card
and forgot about it. Eight years later, you have a $6,000 judgment against
you, or maybe youíre not the same Mary Smith. Weíll represent people in those
What he pays his baby sitter: More than the minimum
wage. We pay her on the books. I get a tax advantage, and the reality is, itís the right thing to do.
Best thing heís learned: To operate quickly, to gather
Why he does it: Iím going to be 75, hopefully, one
day, and looking back on my existence on the planet. Hopefully, I will have
saved thousands and thousands of lives.
His housing situation: We have a three-bedroom
co-op at Fourth Street
and Avenue A, my wife and I ó sheís a lawyer with a union. Itís economically
and racially diverse. Our kids have friends that are Japanese, French and
Arabic. They all play the same games.
Rules for living: I compost, I use reusable
bottles. I do yoga.
Whatís on his iPod: Iím
too old for an iPod. But I got a Facebook.
Why he wears an earring in each ear: Iíve had them
since college. It seemed normal. I used to have more.