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Advocate for the Disabled

Attorney and alumna Susan Silverstein ‘79 has made a career of protecting the poor, aged, and disabled from housing discrimination.
October 1, 2005

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.”

Silverstein’s work includes litigation and amicus briefs on a variety of issues, from redevelopment to racial discrimination.

Her briefs have advocated “livable communities” that feature affordable housing, support services, and provisions for mobility that foster seniors’ independence and community involvement. Stuart Cohen, AARP Foundation Litigation’s director of legal advocacy, says Silverstein has made a big impact in the movement for livable communities. “She will keep pushing and pushing to get back to something that she believes will be appropriate under the law,” Cohen says. “She’s pretty tenacious.”

Tenacity alone would not be enough. Silverstein’s colleagues say her mathematical background is evident in the way she practices law. Michael Hanley, an attorney with the Greater Upstate Law Project in Rochester, says Silverstein often chooses to tackle problems that are logically complex. He remembers one case in which she tried to close the gap between the services provided by the state housing and social-services programs. It involved a lot of statistical analysis, and Hanley says that it was “a hopelessly complicated case to present.” But Silverstein brought the case anyway. “What other people would say is just a mathematical complexity, she would say is an injustice, and she would figure out how it was unjust,” Hanley says.

Silverstein also applies her mathematical mind to her knitting. “I’m always looking for patterns that use some interesting construction or work on some mathematical principle,” she says. And she uses her hobby to serve, recently spearheading a knitting project for AARP’s annual day of service.

With her strong sense of justice, her passion for doing right, and her ability to persuade others to support her ideas, Silverstein makes an impression. “I don’t think there’s anybody who has worked with her who wouldn’t remember her,” Hanley says. “She’s quite a presence.” But Silverstein prefers to be known for the social changes she has helped effect and toward which she continues to work. Perhaps that’s why the pin on her office door reads, “I am a shameless agitator.”

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