Story by CHARLES ANZALONE
Anyone looking for lasting life lessons should listen to University at Buffalo Law School Prof. George M. Hezel and note his work on the Affordable Housing Clinic.
There is a certain justice in having Hezel as the founder and driving force behind the clinic, which has given literally thousands of community members a chance at basic services and safe, clean living spaces – all while teaching UB Law School students marketable skills in the complicated world of nonprofit financing and government grants.
Like many of the people his clinic has helped, Hezel is a product of public housing. One of five sons, Hezel grew up in the Kenfield Housing Project at 156 Langfield Drive. He has fond memories of Kenfield and his neighbors, celebrating what public housing has to offer, rather than making excuses for its limitations.
“It was a lively community with gaggles of kids to play with,” says Hezel. “We caught pollywogs in the spring pools and picked wild strawberries in the fields, which now are occupied by Route 33.
“We played in softball leagues in the ‘Project,’ as it was generally called. At dinner time, smells of ethnic foods wafted through the air. It may have been public housing, but I felt in no way deprived.”
Today, Hezel is giving back to the community by directing the Affordable Housing Clinic's efforts to create new spaces and environments for clients of public housing. He takes satisfaction in seeing families happy to be in their new homes, paying affordable rents and paying lower utility costs because the appliances are all energy-efficient.
As the UB Law School celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, the housing clinic’s successes demonstrate how the school has helped improve the lives of people across Western New York.
"Do good,” as Hezel likes to say, “as well as doing well.”
And the accompanying personal happiness is a bonus.
All this is clear whenever Hezel and his law students — and there have been hundreds over the years — tour the facilities that exist in large measure because of the clinic. As they walk the neighborhoods, they see beautiful apartments, green grass for new playgrounds, trees and benches, gardens — all the things that make life pleasant.
And taking one of those quiet, satisfying strolls is easy: Since the clinic began 25 years ago, more than 65 structures have been built in locations that span Niagara Falls, Buffalo’s East and West sides, and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
“Like my students, I am energized by the tangible results of our efforts,” says Hezel, who blends an amicable manner with the ardor and confidence of someone whose work makes a difference and who is driven to do more.
Hezel’s commitment to education and public service stems from life experiences, beginning from the time he was a boy.
His mother died when he was 3, leaving his father to raise the five boys, ages 6 months to 7. They were raised as serious Catholics, attending local Catholic elementary schools. Then Hezel entered Canisius High School and became “fascinated” by the Jesuits and their ardor for education.
After studying to be a Jesuit priest, Hezel entered UB Law School, graduating in 1973 and working for a variety of legal-service agencies, including the Legal Aid Bureau and Neighborhood Legal Services in Buffalo, then directing the housing division for Catholic Charities.
In 1987, then-Law School Dean Wade Newhouse asked Hezel to establish what has become the university’s Affordable Housing Clinic. Twenty-five years later, finding UB Law School graduates who savor their experience is as easy as locating one of the clinic’s many facilities.
And the students echo something Hezel knows: What affordable housing law lacks in glamor, it easily makes up in lasting satisfaction and practical, real-life skills.
Lisa Kaseman, project director for Conifer Realty in Rochester and a 2006 graduate of UB Law School, is one of these alumni. She says the Affordable Housing Clinic provided a strong foundation for a career in affordable housing development, helping her develop skills including the critical thinking necessary to create complex legal and financial structures.
“The clinic provided me a glimpse of how lives are deeply affected by having a place to call home,” Kaseman said. “Building affordable housing is as much about building dreams and creating opportunities as it is building a home.”
Throughout the clinic’s 25 years, a constant has been its ability to help community organizations obtain money to make low-income and special-needs housing a reality.
The clinic’s assistance was crucial, for instance, to establishing Carolyn’s House, a 19-unit transitional housing shelter for women in Niagara Falls. “We wouldn’t have been able to do what we do without the clinic,” says Kathleen Granchelli, CEO of the YWCA of Niagara, who oversees the facility. “They were the partner that helped us with the technical part of the grant that we didn’t have the ability and resources to do. They held our hands throughout the process.”
Today, Carolyn’s House provides dignified housing for women, mostly with multiple children, Granchelli says.
“These women have experienced challenges that have led them to become homeless. They come from nothing. We try to find a way to bring them from these challenges to independence. While they are here, they are provided with many services beyond what you would have if you lived in someone’s rental property. They’re supported throughout the process. That’s the key.
“After they are there for a couple of years,” Granchelli says, “they have a job, a college education and are re-united with their children. All those things people take for granted.”
Hezel and his associates feel the joy of knowing they have made a concrete difference in people’s lives. Those walks past the living monuments of their actions are meaningful for good reason.
“We all enjoy the cumulative effect of our many efforts over the past 25 years at rebuilding the Western New York communities by attracting investment that otherwise might not be available here,” Hezel says.
And there is what Hezel calls “parental pride” in watching his “student colleagues” secure jobs. That’s where the “doing good along with doing well” comes in.
“And to be happy in their good work,” Hezel says. “In a tight job market, that’s not bad. My students can be found all over the state and nation working to build up the communities they work in by applying the knowledge picked up here in Buffalo.”
The Affordable Housing Clinic’s legacy keeps renewing itself every year. As Hezel shepherds new generations of students through the often cryptic process of developing affordable housing through grants, subsidies and government applications, he often encounters former students representing various parties — banks, investors and governments — associated with the clinic’s current projects.
“We have managed to populate the organizational infrastructure associated with affordable housing and community development with UB law grads,” he says. “As I look in the future, I see an ongoing need for the work of the clinic.
“The city and surrounding communities continue to decay and rebuild. Students who aspire to fruitful lives continue to assist in the rebuilding efforts.”
Throughout the landscape are people whose lives were directly and often profoundly changed because of the work of the Affordable Housing Clinic. One of these people is Kasara Mcleod, a resident of Cornerstone Manor, a shelter for women and children in downtown and one of the facilities to directly benefit from the Affordable Housing Clinic. Mcleod lost one of the most important ingredients in her life – a place for her to welcome her grandchildren – when she got evicted from her home. Even though her situation is different from before, that’s still something that makes her voice crack with emotion.
“I lost my job, and six months later, I got evicted from my home,” says Mcleod, a resident of Cornerstone Manor. “I worked at Amvets Thrift Store, actually. I worked that job off and on for 26 years. And I couldn’t find anything after that, so I couldn’t pay the rent. Here comes eviction.”
Mcleod calls herself “broken” when she arrived at Cornerstone. But thanks to the involvement of the people and the benefit of the programs at Cornerstone, she will be looking for another home soon, much better equipped to cope with the challenges that come up than before.
“I came here, took some classes,” she says. “One of them was financial literacy. How to save money, how to not go back and get that money. So if I have to get out of my house again I can go to the bank and say, ‘Oh, I have this.’
“I don’t know exactly where I am going yet. I’m still looking for a place. I have to give myself time. I don’t want to rush it.”
“The clinic provided me a glimpse of how lives are deeply affected by having a place to call home. Building affordable housing is as much about building dreams and creating opportunities as it is building a home.”
—Lisa Kaseman, 2006 UB Law School graduate, and project director for Conifer Realty in Rochester, NY
“While changing lives in our region, the Affordable Housing Clinic has also been a nationally-known part of our Clinical Legal Education Program for a decade. It continues to be a shining example of how the Law School is committed to teaching students practical skills so they can hit the ground running when it comes to entering the professional world of lawyers.”
—Kim Diana Connolly, vice dean for skills and clinical director