In 1990, Daisy Cason was living in a Rochester, NY, nursing home. She struggled with arthritis and had other mobility problems, but by and large, she took care of herself. The home’s staff recommended she live on her own, though she would need government assistance to afford it.
So Cason applied for admission to the Rochester Housing Authority’s newly constructed senior development. But instead of a place to live, Cason received a letter from the authority telling her she would not qualify for government housing until she proved she could live elsewhere independently for 18 months, something she could not afford to do.
When Susan Ann Silverstein ‘79, then a senior attorney for Monroe County Legal Assistance in Rochester, heard about Cason’s plight, she saw it as a case of disability discrimination. She brought suit against the Rochester Housing Authority for Cason and two other clients who encountered similar obstacles. “I wanted to help the individuals live in a better place, and I wanted to make the system make sense,” says Silverstein, now a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation, a legal group that conducts high-visibility litigation on behalf of AARP members. As it turned out, Silverstein was right to suspect discrimination. In 1990 she not only won the case but also set a national precedent. Judge David Larimer of the Western New York federal district court declared that the U.S. Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of any housing on the basis of a prospective occupant’s “handicap”; the ability to live independently could not be used as a requirement for housing eligibility. Following the decision, both the Rochester Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) revised their policies. Cason was admitted to the senior development.
The Cason case brought Silverstein national recognition as an expert on housing issues and advocacy for the poor, disabled, and aged. Her success led to involvement with local and Congressional task forces on public housing and helped her earn a fellowship from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, a position with HUD, and her current job at AARP, where she is often seen knitting her way through meetings. Now Silverstein argues on behalf of the elderly in both litigation and amicus curiae briefs filed to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of AARP members.
Silverstein had not always seemed destined for legal stardom. For two years at MIT, she studied mathematics. In one math class, she was the only woman among 46 students. But her humanities classes became more attractive, since they suited her interpersonal skills better. So she switched majors and studied literature.
After she graduated, an employee in the work-study office suggested that her verbal skills would serve her well if she became a lawyer. Silverstein took the advice to heart and applied to the Columbia University School of Law. She graduated in 1983.
She spent the next 15 years representing the poor, starting out as a community lawyer in Bath, NY, and Rochester. She looked for ways to make an impact–to change systems and policies while seeking justice for individuals. Silverstein had realized while in law school that working with people was extremely important to her. “I know it sounds naive, but I just wanted to help people,” she remembers. Now, sporting a pair of purple-rimmed glasses and a multicolored shawl she knitted, she considers prospective cases from a Washington, DC, office adorned with vibrant prints of paintings by Henri Matisse and Georgia O’Keeffe, and under the watchful face of a clock that reads, “I’d rather be knitting.”