Sateesh Nori ’01 on what he learned advocating for NYC tenants

Even when Sateesh Nori ’01 was a law student, he wasn’t sure he ultimately wanted to practice law. He was debating whether to get a teaching certificate instead of taking the bar exam when he saw a posting for a job at the Legal Aid Society representing tenants in housing court. Intrigued, he opted to take the bar exam—and got the position.

Sateesh Nori
Sateesh Nori

“I started the job that I continued to have for 20 years,” says Nori, who eventually served as the attorney-in-charge for Legal Aid’s Queens neighborhood practice. “I could not have known how incredibly diverse and rewarding that career would be.”

Though he left Legal Aid in 2022, Nori has continued to make housing law the focus of his career. He is now executive director of JustFix, a startup focused on creating digital tools to help New Yorkers understand and claim their housing rights. At the Law School, he co-teaches the Housing Law Externship, which he founded with former Legal Aid colleague Julia McNally ’05 in 2018. In March, Nori published a memoir, Sheltered: Twenty Years in Housing Court, reflecting on his life, career, and some of his legal cases and what he learned from them.

In this Q&A, Nori discusses how working on tenants’ rights has helped him reach the goal that brought him to law school: making a difference in individual lives.

Can you talk about why you almost chose teaching over law? What did you find meaningful about working in housing court?

Growing up, I always wanted to be a lawyer because I envisioned it as a way to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong, and to try to find the truth through argument. Teaching is similar: there’s a quest for the truth and also elements of performance and persuasion.

Working as a housing lawyer is similar to teaching in that you have an immediate impact every single day on some small thing in someone’s life. In many cases, that small thing could have a huge impact on someone’s life. A lawyer in a place like housing court is helping address a very everyday problem like, “Where do I live? How do I pay for it? How do I make sure it’s safe and healthy for my family?”

Every case is different. There are so many stories to hear. There are so many aspects of the city that you see play out. You’re at the intersection of immigration law and family law, and you know housing and public benefits and employment, and all of these things come together. Working with people on issues that impact their lives so deeply is what allowed me to stay in the practice for 20 years.

What lessons from your time at Legal Aid have you brought to your job as executive director of JustFix?

Even though you’re working so hard for people who are so deserving, you can’t change the raw fact of people owing rent, people not having leases, people not being able to afford rent when they fall behind. There is nothing we can do to change certain fundamental inequities. This means that housing lawyers lose quite often.

But then there are cases, like this one in which I represented a mother and her daughter who ended up being evicted from their apartment because their landlord wanted their apartment to house his parents. After we lost the trial, I was heartbroken for my clients, but the daughter wrote me a handwritten note to say, “No one had ever listened to us before. You fought really hard for us and my mother and I are so proud of you…I want to go to law school some day to do this type of work.” This type of thing reminds you that it’s not about winning or losing material things, it’s about people’s dignity. We fight for people and make sure that the system can work for them and that everyone has a stake in it.

In housing, it’s always: how do you help more people with fewer resources? In 2016, I heard about JustFix and the online tools they were making to help tenants claim their rights. I reached out to them and they invited me to join their board. A year and a half ago, the executive director position opened up, and it felt like the right move.

How did you come to co-found the Housing Law Externship?

In 2017, New York City passed new legislation that gave tenants the right to counsel. This created opportunities for tenant lawyers like never before. I came back to NYU Law to present on a job panel about tenants’ rights, and after that Lisa Hoyes [’99, assistant dean for public service,] got in touch about starting a tenant defense clinic.

Our students do a significant amount of trial work and direct representation, learning the skills they’ll need to be trial lawyers and having a lot of contact with clients and a lot of individual responsibility for cases.

Working with students keeps the work fresh. You’re seeing the law through someone else’s eyes and having to ask yourself fundamental questions all the time about “Why is the law like that?” And then pivoting to thinking, “If it shouldn’t be like that, how should it be? Let’s fix it.”

Tell me about JustFix. What are some of its goals?

At JustFix, we build tech tools to empower tenants and enable housing advocates, organizers, and policy makers to improve housing conditions for everyone.

Our tools do really practical things. For example, we have a prepopulated letter where you can check off a box like, “My kitchen tile is broken,” or “There’s a leak in my bathroom,” and we generate the letter and then track down your landlord’s address and stamp and mail the letter for you for free. Sometimes landlords fix [the issues] and sometimes they don’t, but it’s proof in case these folks end up having to go to court.

A lot of New Yorkers have never heard of housing court, and that’s because it really functions as a punishment for low-income people who are forced to go again and again. To counter this, JustFix piloted a program during the pandemic through which tenants could commence lawsuits against their landlords for repairs from their phones. This turned the tables in housing court and gave tenants more power.

On the horizon, we’re really interested in exploring the intersection of public health and housing. During COVID, we learned people who live in low-income neighborhoods were more likely to die of COVID, and people who live in substandard housing are more likely to get sick and stay sick longer. But even in the best of times, we know that public housing is more likely to have mold. We also see that there are higher rates of asthma in public housing and other kinds of chronic illness. We think it would be really impactful to look at these kinds of data overlays.

In March, you published Sheltered: Twenty Years in Housing Court, discussing your experience as a tenant lawyer. What inspired you to write a book?

During the pandemic, I started doing a lot of thinking about what was next for me and what had been meaningful for me, and I just started writing it all down. What comes through is this thread: the stories of the people I represent is also my story. I’m an immigrant, I was born in India and was brought here as a child, and I entered this world as an outsider. I didn’t face housing insecurity, but as an outsider I was used to having to navigate my way through a world I was unfamiliar with, even as I was guiding others behind me as well, like my clients.

Thinking about my career has helped me encourage my students at the Law School to take risks. You have the benefit of this really amazing law degree, you can take really big risks, and if you do, and you’re lucky, you can end up having a career that’s really special.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted April 19, 2023.