Housing Law professor goes to bat for tenants, homeowners

by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Freedom in property ownership and use is a civil liberty dating back to this country’s founding, and the home as a safe space is an American institution, says Elan Stavros Nichols, assistant clinical professor at Michigan State University College of Law Housing Law Clinic.

“I feel so lucky to be using my skills originally learned in advocating for businesses and individuals of means, to now advocating for those who truly have no one else to stand up for them,” she says.

Nichols enjoys watching the transformation of inexperienced students into confident and knowledgeable attorneys as they learn how to talk to clients, legal professionalism/ethics, law firm management, litigation, legal research and writing skills. Her students experience the pressures of balancing cases, clients, course work, and a personal life, just as they will in future careers.

“They learn to negotiate with contentious opposing parties and lawyers, and they learn the personal and professional satisfaction that comes from helping someone – here it happens to usually be someone who really is in need,” she says.

Students hold several community presentations each semester such as seminars on “How to be a Good Landlord,” and handle a few hundred calls per semester on a “hotline” and advice/counsel service operating five days a week, up to 8 hours a day. Last summer Nichols continued to investigate the varied suspect business practices of a local slumlord the clinic frequently encounters – and with whom it was in litigation. “In that case, students and faculty researched and negotiated a tricky ethical quandary at the conclusion of our representation,” she says.

Nichols’ teaching methods draw out of the students a complex thought process, whereby they are prompted to analyze legal problems for themselves and look at them from multiple different legal directions, touching on several areas of the law they have studied in other classes, such as contracts, ethics, and tort law, she says.

Housing law as a public interest law field on behalf of a low-income homeowner or tenant is a fairly narrow area, practiced in state and federal free legal services organizations, nonprofits, some government agencies, and law school clinics.

“Depending on the specific organization, it can be a lot of public advocacy work, and a little bit litigation, or vice versa,” Nichols says. “Nationally it tends to be more in the advocacy arena, and locally, more in the litigation arena. It’s a very meaningful field to enter, particularly because it can be on behalf of those less fortunate.”

She is proud of a recent collaboration staff at the clinic recently reinstituted with the re-publishing of their seminal publication, “The Tenants and Landlords Practical Guide,” a joint project with the Michigan State Legislature.

“My research and scholarship has been in tenant foreclosure law, on which I published an article last year,” she says. “I’m currently working on a piece regarding litigation management and teaching civil litigation effectively.”

Published in the ABA Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development, Thomas M. Cooley Law Review, the Real Property Review of the State Bar of Michigan, and other local and state legal and real estate trade publications, Nichols also has served as a presenter and facilitator for legal and educational seminars and conferences, and has been interviewed by local media on housing law issues. She also supervised students this year in presenting “Veterans’ Housing Law Rights” for the Veterans Support Group at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program office in Lansing.

Nichols, who participates on behalf of the clinic in the Greater Lansing Homeless Resolution Network’s meetings and projects, served on the Ingham County Bar Association Young Lawyers Board of Directors for eight years and is a former president.

“I think it’s important to get entrenched in the local legal community when you’re a legal professional, for personal, professional, and social reasons,” she says.

For the last three years, she has served as a consultant on housing law issues for the State of Michigan Legislature’s Legislative Service Bureau and MSU’s Office of Visiting International Students and related international university offices.

Nichols got her first taste of the law when her high school newspaper – of which she was an editor – was censored.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, it was only the lawyer who stepped in to help us who could assist us in making any progress with the issue,” she says.

After earning her juris doctorate from Michigan State University College of Law, she clerked for Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Peter O’Connell and former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Clifford Taylor then worked for the Lansing real estate law firm of McClelland & Anderson, LLP.

“I sort of fell into housing law by way of my prior experience as a staff attorney and clerk for Michigan’s appellate courts, including the state Supreme Court,” she says. “After working for the high court, I went to the firm, which did a fair amount of amicus appeals in property law generally, so I could assist with that due to my history in the appeals courts.”

Nichols’ husband David is an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Saginaw Valley State University, and has taught at MSU.

“So we currently have teaching in common and can discuss the best ways to help our students learn,” she says.

The couple met while doing philosophy degrees at the University of Michigan.

“I’m a first-and-a-half generation Greek-American and Greek philosophy was, as a result, of interest to me,” she says. “They were thinking about nuanced political, moral, religious, and social questions so long ago.”

She and her husband both did graduate work at MSU, before David obtained his doctorate at Boston University.

Nichols enjoys trips to Lake Michigan, movies, and reading, and she and her husband try to visit Greece every other year. The Traverse City native also serves on the Parish Council of Lansing’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Christian Church, on her church charity women’s board, and church Greek language and culture program board, including fund-raising activities for local, state, and national charities. “For my faith, family history, and culture, church involvement is vital in my family’s life,” she says.