photo of Abrahams.

Heather Abraham: ‘Moving the needle’ on housing equity

At a moment in U.S. history when issues of racial equity are receiving long-delayed attention, Associate Professor Heather Abraham is deeply invested in one of the most foundational: where people live.

Her research and advocacy center around fair housing, something she says “has captivated me for a decade now.” It was the basis of her master of public policy program at the University of Minnesota and it informed her time at the University of Minnesota Law School, where she earned a J.D., magna cum laude.

While earning her joint degrees, she had mentors who represented two different schools of thought, each of which influenced her current focus. Studying litigation, she came to ask: “Where do people live, and why is it so inequitable? Why are communities of color disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and denied mortgages at higher rates? I learned that intentionally planning a community in a race-conscious way can really impact racial outcomes – where we invest in transportation, how we zone, where we draw school district boundaries. These decisions—most of them local—make a difference. They affect not only quality of life and access to resources, but who people interact with, all of which influence racial inequality.”

By contrast, Abraham says, her public policy mentor emphasized the critical shortage of affordable housing, pointing out that getting people into safe and affordable shelter must be the priority, even if that housing is built in racially concentrated areas—often the place where it is most immediately needed.

“The future is both,” she says. “My work examines race-conscious solutions but remains cognizant of our critical housing shortage. It is both place-based and mobility-driven.”

As director of UB Law’s Civil Rights & Transparency Clinic, Abraham is integrating fair housing issues into the clinic’s overall portfolio, which traditionally focused on civil liberties and freedom of information litigation.

In the Clinic, student attorneys are building a docket of new civil rights cases “to move the needle on advancing housing choice.” She is also challenging the students to think about the future of civil rights through a semester-long research and writing assignment. She asks them to consider the most pressing civil rights issues of today, as well as issues that are overlooked, and then asks how the Clinic can make an impact on those issues—at the university level as much as the local, state, and national level. One student, for instance, has proposed a series of actions to support the rights of transgender persons, including working with student groups to build programming around gender pronoun choice and holding a pro bono name-change clinic.

When asked about her teaching goals, Abraham emphasizes the objectives she has for every student attorney. “We’re really trying to build student confidence,” she says, “developing their lawyer identity, helping them to know their strengths and how can they use them in practice, how they want other people to perceive them, helping them to develop a growth mindset, and sharpening their practice skills.”

Before joining UB Law, Abraham was a teaching fellow and a supervising attorney for the Civil Rights Clinic at the Georgetown University Law Center. Students there work on federal civil rights cases such as housing and employment discrimination, administrative law, First Amendment, police misconduct, and policy advocacy.

Early in her career, as an Equal Justice Works fellow in northern Michigan, she founded a problem-solving Community Outreach Court that is still going strong, providing homeless rural residents the tools they need to obtain stable housing and employment. She previously clerked at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Abraham graduated from Kalamazoo College with a bachelor of arts in political science, with a concentration in urban public policy, magna cum laude. Most recently, she participated in Georgetown University Law Center’s top-ranked clinical fellowship program while completing her master of laws degree with distinction.