UC Law Fellow finds solutions for the complex issue of workforce housing

For Elizabeth Gatten (JD, ’21), becoming an attorney was not her dream growing up. In fact, with her biochemistry and microbiology degree she had designs on being a doctor. But then, something happened. “When it came time to submit that medical school application, I realized my heart wasn't in it anymore,” said Gatten. “What I valued about the idea of being a doctor was the ability to help others…Serendipitously, my college posted an opportunity for legal internships right around that time. I interned at a civil rights firm and was hooked.” The rest, as they say, is history.

That legal internship fueled Gatten’s interest in the legal field, strengthened her personal mission to help address inequities in society, and led her to Cincinnati Law. After working as an attorney at Legal Aid of Greater Cincinnati and seeing how the law can be used to help others in a more impactful, largescale way, Gatten has returned to the College of Law. This time, she is working as the Ian Bruce Eichner Research Fellow in Workforce Housing Policy. Her objective is to develop policies that positively impact the housing needs for families and communities in Cincinnati and peer cities. And she’s excited about the contribution and impact she will be able to make.

Starting her career close to home

Elizabeth Gatten, UC Law graduate and Eichner Fellow

Elizabeth Gatten

Born and raised in Sturgis, KY, about four hours southwest of Cincinnati, Gatten decided upon law school after graduating from Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. The daughter of a coal miner and a teacher, she chose Cincinnati Law because of its close proximity to home. “I knew I wanted to stay in the region because being close to my family is important to me, but I also wanted to experience life outside of Kentucky for a while. Cincinnati is the perfect balance. Plus, I got an incredible scholarship!” 

Initially, her goal was to work in the area of public interest. “I went into law school wanting to do public interest work. I pictured myself doing civil rights litigation. I applied for law school in 2017 and started in 2018, so this was at the height of the [previous administration] when a lot of civil rights issues were being raised—many of which persist today.”

Enjoying her law school experience

While a student at Cincinnati Law, Gatten was actively involved –participating with UC Women in Law and writing for the Nathaniel Jones Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice blog. She also participated in and won—with her competition partner Sol Ouzounian—first place honors at the first annual Law Student Diversity Case Competition, hosted by UC Law and law firm Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL.

Her externship experiences were varied as she spent the summer after her first year working for civil rights firm Gerhardstein & Branch (now known as Friedman, Gilbert + Gerhardstein). She continued working there through her second year. During the summer after her 2L year, Gatten was selected for the 2020 class of the Rural Summer Legal Corps, a partnership between Legal Services Corporation and Equal Justice Works that supports law students who want to address pressing legal issues facing rural communities. She was one of 35 chosen from over 400 applicants for this honor. Gatten worked at Legal Aid of Greater Cincinnati and stayed on as a law clerk through her final year of law school.  

Through my work at Legal Aid, I experienced the ways lawyers can make a positive impact on people's daily lives.

Elizabeth Gatten '21

After graduation and passing the bar, she returned to Legal Aid as a staff attorney, focusing her work in the housing and family law practice groups. This experience solidified her goal to become a lawyer.  “Through my work at Legal Aid, I experienced the ways lawyers can make a positive impact on people's daily lives,” said Gatten. “I helped people defeat eviction cases filed against them and get civil protection orders against abusive partners. It was an incredibly powerful experience. At the same time, it also showed me just how lacking many of our legal policies are. When you're providing direct legal services at a place like Legal Aid, you're limited to what the law allows you to do. If the law is not favorable to your client, even if you feel like that law is unreasonable, then you might not have a defense. Those barriers led me to seek a policy-focused position.”

All of these experiences made Gatten a terrific fit for Cincinnati Law’s new workforce housing policy fellowship.  

Examining the issue of workforce housing

The Ian Bruce Eichner Research Fellowship in Workforce Housing Policy, established with a $500K gift from law alumnus Bruce Eichner (’69), is a three-year program aimed at improving research, advocacy, development, and access to workforce housing. Gatten is a post doctoral fellow based at the College of Law, whose work is supported by faculty from the College of Law, the Lindner College of Business, the College of Arts & Sciences, and the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. It is truly an interdisciplinary role.

Faculty will engage with the policy-focused work of the Fellow via their expertise in areas such as financial modeling, design and planning, urban politics, and community and economic development—all aimed at identifying novel solutions to the shortage of workforce housing. At UC Law, Gatten works in collaboration with Jacob Cogan, the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Judge Joseph P. Kinneary Professor of Law, and Nate Ela, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Law, who is jointly appointed at UC’s School for Public and International Affairs and the College of Law. She also is supported by an advisory committee that includes Ela; Dr. David Brasington, Professor and the James C. and Caroline Kautz Chair in Political Economy at the Lindner College of Business; and Dr. Hayden Shelby, Assistant Professor in the School of Planning at the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.

Gatten and her work will benefit from the college’s significant experience in community-action research, ensuring that the voices of those most likely affected by the issue of workforce housing help inform the research. The fellowship program also benefits from the law school’s connections to the city and regional government, real estate developers and local communities, to ensure they are included as stakeholders in the research and development process. Stakeholder meetings will be held throughout the process, culminating in a colloquium, website, and print publication to share the findings and recommendations with local and regional partners and other entities actively involved in this issue.

This role is a great balance of researching housing models combined with time spent engaging with folks in the community…

Elizabeth Gatten '21

Gaining an understanding of workforce housing

typical low-rise apartment building. construction of affordable housing. mortgage lending for a young family.

Affordable housing apartment units

Generally, the term workforce housing applies to housing that is affordable for city employees. Teachers, police officers, social workers, and healthcare workers are examples of professions that often cannot afford to live in the cities where they work. Gatten is developing a definition of workforce housing tailored to the particular conditions of Cincinnati and similar cities. “Most commonly, workforce housing is considered to be the segment of the housing market where households earn too much money to qualify for most federal or state housing programs,” she explains, “but too little to afford market-rate housing in the area.”

“Most people know that we are in a housing crisis,” Gatten notes. “Housing is less affordable and less available, and a lot of people are struggling right now. This role is a great balance of researching housing models combined with time spent engaging with folks in the community to hear their thoughts on the issue of workforce housing.” Her ultimate goal, she explains, is to “develop actionable recommendations to address the workforce housing shortage in Cincinnati and cities that face similar conditions.”

Advisory committee member Dr. Brasington underscores the importance of the fellowship and what stands to be learned. “It will be interesting,” he observes, “to see the extent to which market forces can supply the housing needs of working-class families, the extent to which government can help achieve this outcome, and to think about the unintended consequences of government action,”  

Planning a schedule for action

Gatten’s working timeline will be packed. During the first year, she is developing central research questions; identifying and reviewing prior research; gathering information and making connections at conferences and community meetings; and conducting interviews with local players and community members who work on housing, as well as with national experts. During her second year she will draft a policy report on a proposed workforce housing model and share the proposal with a range of stakeholders. In the third year she plans to present the research findings at an academic symposium, publish a report both online and in print, and share her recommendations with stakeholders in a range of settings.

We’re so excited to have Elizabeth bring her expertise and passion to this project, and to see the cutting-edge ideas for housing policy she develops in conversation with people at UC, around the city, and across the country.

Professor Nate Ela

“Bruce Eichner’s generous support is enabling UC Law to help find solutions for the housing affordability crisis—a pressing problem not just in Cincinnati but also in cities nationwide,” said Professor Ela, another advisory committee member. “We’re so excited to have Elizabeth bring her expertise and passion to this project, and to see the cutting-edge ideas for housing policy she develops in conversation with people at UC, around the city, and across the country.”

Gatten concluded, “When I made the decision to go to law school, my central goal was to use my law degree to help others. I believe this position still serves that purpose, just in a less traditional ‘lawyer’ role than litigation.”

Want to learn how your investment in fellowships, scholarships and programs at the College of Law makes a real impact in the lives of recent graduates? Contact Carolyn Adam at carolyn.adam@foundation.uc.edu.  

About the University of Cincinnati College of Law

Founded in 1833, the University of Cincinnati College of Law has the distinction of being the first law school west of the Alleghenies. From humble beginnings 175 years ago in a room above Timothy Walker’s law offices to its new home today, Cincinnati Law has been on the leading edge of legal education. Thousands of lawyers have graduated from the law school, and about one-third practice in the Greater Cincinnati community, working in all areas of the law. For more information about the College of Law, visit www.law.uc.edu.


Gatten photo: courtesy of Mike Tadele; lead photo and others: courtesy of istockphoto.com

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