Meet The Tenant Lawyer On NYC's Planning Commission

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Leah Goodridge is no stranger to long hours. Representing New York City tenants facing eviction by day, she also served several years on the Rent Guidelines Board, tasked with setting allowable rent increases for roughly 1 million regulated apartments.

Leah Goodridge

Now, Goodridge has brought her experience working with tenants — and as one herself — to a new post. In addition to being a managing attorney at legal services provider Mobilization for Justice, she is the only tenant lawyer on New York City's planning commission, which considers hundreds of land use applications each year.

In her new post as one of 13 commissioners — the only one appointed by the city's public advocate — Goodridge will review and vote on a wide range of projects, from single-lot developments all the way up to neighborhood rezoning proposals.

Law360 recently spoke to Goodridge about her path to the law, how she hopes to fight displacement in her new role, and the challenges of participating in video hearings from the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her pet canary. 

You have a bird inside your apartment?

Yes, I have a canary. I've had him for a year, but he's quiet all day until I get on Zoom or something and then all of a sudden when I get on a work call he starts singing.

What's his name?

Reuben. So sorry for that distraction!

Was the commission a body you had followed closely prior to your appointment?

No, I hadn't followed it closely. And I think one of the things a lot of people will say is they care about development and they care about knowing what's going on, but they may not know about the City Planning Commission.

Why do you think this job is an important one?

I'll be honest with you — a lot of my family, they've moved out of New York because it's just not affordable. People want to be able to buy a home, have a good quality of life. So I was actually considering moving out of New York for that very reason. Because I took a step back and looked around and said to myself, how affordable is this city going to be for you in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years? Are you going to be able to retire here? And I couldn't answer. The answer depended on, well, how many luxury buildings are going to go up? How long am I going to be able to live where I'm currently living now?

I actually had joked to myself — the way I'll know to stay here is if I can have a position or role where I get to have a voice about the actual planning of the city and affordability.

You are part of a 13-member body. How do you plan to influence the debate over any given project?

What I've been doing so far is whenever we have our public review sessions, I've been asking questions that really point to equity. Anytime there's a luxury development, I'm going to ask, who is going to get displaced?

I see my role as an advocate for affordable housing, and as part of that, when we have discussions about gentrification and actual affordability and luxury developments, I will definitely speak up about what that means for working class and moderate-income New Yorkers.

There's so many things that come before us, I think it's very easy to move right along to the next. So, keeping that equity focus.

What inspired you to become a lawyer?

I know it sounds cliché to say but from as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a lawyer. I never wanted to be anything else. The phrase my mother always reminds me I used to say when I was a small child was, "It's not fair." I was always talking about some level of unfairness or injustice that was happening at school, or to someone else.

How did you find your way to housing law?

You know, the funny thing is that the one class I hated in law school was property, and here I am as a housing rights lawyer. I definitely knew that I wanted to be a public interest attorney, but I was open as to what field. And then I graduated in the recession and when I graduated there were not a lot of jobs available, and I actually failed the bar.

And so when I graduated law school and there weren't any opportunities available and I was still trying to pass the bar I started a project at Medgar Evers College teaching people how to start a nonprofit. It was called the Community Economic Development Project, so I basically helped entrepreneurs start their ventures.

It made me think a lot about what goes into making a community, and then this job presented itself as a legal services attorney for tenants' rights. And I thought, that's it.

By then I was on my own. My mother had moved out of New York. She moved down south, so I began to see just how unaffordable it was in New York City. So for me it was a great fit because it was a personal connection to my life.

Back to the bar exam — failing the bar must have been a challenging experience.

It definitely changed my life a bit. And I'm not afraid to say this, but it was actually a huge failure for me and I actually entered into a depressive state. And little things like going outside or going to buy food from the grocery store, it was hard for me to do. And I think if I hadn't had that experience, I don't think I would have fully connected as much with my work, because I meet so many people in my work who I might [tell], "You'll have to apply for a one-shot deal [government funding to cover missed rent]," and sometimes it's hard for them to do. And they'll tell me, you know, this is hard. I'm suffering from depression because of going through this hard time, being evicted, I'm freezing — when I say freezing I don't mean cold, but I'm paralyzed. And I get it.

You've argued before the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals. What was that experience like?

Even though I lost this case, I'm still proud of it. Here's what happened — I met a man and his case was that he'd moved in with his mom who had dementia in public housing, and his mom needed help and while she was alive she applied to the [New York City Housing Authority] to add him to her household twice, and then NYCHA denied it. And then she died, and then they sought to evict him. And when I looked through the paperwork it was clear as day that this was really a reasonable accommodation that she'd asked for.

It's pretty scary to go before the Court of Appeals. But I did it. We had a lot of support, and it at least put the argument on the map that this is not OK. And it was a signal to landlords and public housing authorities that, listen, we'll fight this.

How do you think your experience on the job will inform this new role on the commission?

I think I've had the opportunity to talk to New Yorkers. I mean they've been in my offices, I've been representing them over the past decade, and know intimately the effects of gentrification and basically the effects of the City Planning Commission.

Because there's the [commission's] decision, and then there's the way the decision impacts people a year, five years, 10 years, 20 years later. And they're in my office, and I'm representing them.

--Editing by Robert Rudinger.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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