Students Learn While Building Houses, Community


The Law Teacher, Volume 3, number 2 (Spring 1996), p. 4.

About the Author

Maryann Zavez is an associate clinical professor at the South Royalton Legal Clinic of Vermont Law School, P.O. Box 117, South Royalton, VT 05068, (802) 763-7718. Another version of this article appeared previously in the Clinical Legal Education Association's newsletter.

When Adam, a second-year law student and a participant in the South Royalton Legal Clinic at Vermont Law School, and I went out to do an initial interview with a new client last fall, we weren't prepared for the poverty that greeted us at the doorstep.

The client and his family lived a half-mile up a dirt road, impassable in all but summer without a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The family's homestead consisted of a small travel trailer with an attached wood-frame structure that the family hoped someday would become a full-scale house. There was not even a tarp roof to keep rain and snow out of the unfinished structure, even though the family used this space for cooking and storage. There was no electricity or running water. The family hauled water from a nearby stream.

After the client interview, Adam and I wondered what we could do to assist him in improving the family's housing conditions. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the law school had formed a campus chapter of Habitat For Humanity a few years before. Students had worked with local community-action agencies to renovate and weatherize mobile homes. It wasn't long before a formal steering committee was formed to discuss a Habitat building project for this client's family. The steering committee consisted of four students and me, the faculty advisor to the group. The group's first steps included videotaping the site for presentation to the Habitat parent chapter's family selection committee; developing fundraising strategies and beginning to implement them; and, with volunteer experts, evaluating the house site to see what kind of site preparation was necessary.

Vermont Law School is nationally known for its environmental law programs. Consistent with this focus, it was the consensus of the steering committee that our building project would use recycled materials as much as possible, that we would get our lumber from local sawmills, and that the structure would be energy efficient and use alternative sources of energy as much as possible.

The result is a small, energy-efficient house on a site adjacent to the family's former home. The building design and construction people on the steering committee drew the sketches for the house and worked with local town officials and engineers to design appropriate septic and water systems. A local sawmill provided timber.

What did the students learn from this experience? They received some real-life experience in land-use planning, municipal law, and the entire realm of nonprofit organization and management.

They also learned something about our responsibility as lawyers, and as members of a larger community, to respond to community need. And they learned about finding the common ground that enables members of a community to work together.

The law school Habitat chapter hopes to remain a viable community resource and to work with other housing organizations. Several years may go by before our chapter has the human and financial capital to build a complete structure again. But in the meantime, assisting our parent chapter with building projects and fundraising and doing smaller renovation projects will undoubtedly keep our Habitat chapter busy and continue to provide students with an outlet for putting some of their public-interest zeal into a hands-on, multi-faceted experience.