David Abromowitz had plans to be a litigator, the type of lawyer you see in movies and TV shows spending most of their time in a courtroom arguing a case. It wasn’t until his third year at Harvard Law School working with a legal services clinic that he started to think about affordable housing.
During his tenure there, Abromowitz had a client who was a poor immigrant tenant living in a substandard apartment, unable to pay her rent. Her landlord, who had recently immigrated to the United States, had scraped money together to buy a three-family house. Abromowitz, who is now of counsel at Boston-based Goulston & Storrs, realized the effects of his client’s inability to pay: If his client couldn’t pay her rent, the landlord couldn’t pay his mortgage.
“And it struck me; these two relatively economically disadvantaged people were fighting over this substandard, unsafe housing. I started wondering, ‘Why isn’t there a system for building decent affordable housing?’ That led me to shift from litigation to interest in real estate and to explore that,” Abromowitz said.
The deeper he delved into affordable housing and real estate, the more his affinity for the subject grew.
“It was … intellectually and legally very challenging. It’s a complicated area to weave together all the skills of real estate deals with subsidies, tax and regulatory areas. So it’s a very interesting field to practice in, which also produces this positive social impact that … was very tangible and that really appealed to me,” Abromowitz said.
Abromowitz says he was lucky to land at Goulston & Storrs, where in 1983 he represented tenants of the Columbia Point housing project in Boston during its redevelopment. Columbia Point, which was comprised of roughly 1,500 black and Hispanic households, had come to symbolize how public housing didn’t work.
Once described as a “war zone” by residents in the 1980s, Columbia Point transformed into a “public housing dream,” in a matter of years, the New York Times wrote in 1991. Renamed Harbor Point to counter negative images associated with the former name, the once dilapidated neighborhood is now a mixed-income, gated residential community with tennis courts, swimming pools and a volleyball court.
The redevelopment of Columbia Point is one of Abromowitz’s “longest and proudest” associations. Another is the Lawyers Clearinghouse on Affordable Housing and Homelessness, where Abromowitz was among the founders. It connects pro-bono lawyers in Massachusetts to nonprofits and homeless people. He also served on housing advisory groups for the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Deval Patrick when Patrick was the state’s governor-elect.
Abromowitz says affordable housing still has an image problem, one rectified by making “visible and personal the faces of people who live there.”
“People from every walk of life, every race, every type of job and profession — most of the folks living in affordable housing are working. There’s just a gap on what they can afford and what the market is charging at the moment.”
Name: David Abromowitz
Firm: Goulston & Storrs, Boston
Position: Of Counsel
Practice: Affordable housing and economic development, real estate, tax credits
Law School: Harvard Law School, 1982
Advice to young lawyers: “People need to ask themselves what would be a satisfying practice? Would something that has the tangibility and the creativity of real estate transactions appeal even if it’s not the sexiest practice area, or the one with the biggest number of zeros in every deal?”