As a pro bono attorney handling tenant-rights cases for a prestigious law firm in Newark, Abdul Rehman Khan SAS’14, RLAW’17 witnessed many evictions, but one in 2019 was exceptionally egregious. “An elderly woman was illegally locked out because her rent hadn’t been processed, even though we had proof she’d sent it—and paid on time for decades,” he recalls. “And the medication she needed was inside her apartment.”
The woman could have called the police: the first recourse in an eviction not approved by a special court officer. But even if she had, the police might not have stepped in. Until recently, many New Jersey police departments weren’t aware they have jurisdiction over evictions. Khan and multiple colleagues appealed to the state’s attorney general, who issued a directive: If an eviction is illegal, as it was in this case, the police “are required to allow that tenant to enter their home,” Khan says.
The case exemplifies what he calls the “normalization” of a culture favoring property over people at a time when housing and rental costs, as well as homelessness, are on the rise. While the situation was precarious pre-pandemic, “COVID exposed realities that have existed for generations,” Khan says. “We need to design a new set of protections that reflect the needs of today’s residents.”
At age 30, Khan is an accomplished attorney who, after graduating from Rutgers Law School, was on track for a certain type of career—a clerkship with an appellate court judge, followed by commercial litigation at a New York City law firm. “But I knew that wasn’t for me,” he says. Instead, he took the pro bono job at the firm of McCarter & English and continues to fight for housing equity as a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law. There, he co-directs a clinic that’s part of the school’s Housing Justice Project.
What led him in such a socially conscious direction? The seed was sown in childhood, he says. The youngest of four children of Pakistani parents, Khan was born and raised in Bloomfield, New Jersey, “one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the state,” he says. But after 9/11, when Khan was 9 years old, Muslim minorities faced extreme prejudice. “It was fight or flight,” he recalls. “You ran from the politics that came with a name like mine or you fought it.”
Khan chose the latter, majoring in economics, public policy, and political science as an undergraduate at Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. At Rutgers Law School, he soon realized he could leverage what he learned to serve the public interest. For starters, Khan participated in the school’s Constitutional Rights Clinic, where students and professors work to protect individual civil rights and liberties by providing information and referrals, legal consultation and representation, and community outreach and advocacy. He also co-founded a group called Paul Robeson Prison Divest, named for the famous Rutgers College alumnus and distinguished scholar, athlete, actor, and global activist. It was a group, Khan says, “that wanted to ensure Rutgers’ endowment was not investing in the private prison industry.”
But it wasn’t until Khan started the pro bono job and became immersed in housing justice that he felt he had found his calling. At first, he helped defend tenants who were threatened with eviction, 95 percent of whom, he says, couldn’t afford a court fight. When COVID hit and the courts closed temporarily, he shifted to informing tenants of their rights via virtual workshops, where “15,000 people,” he says, “were trying to get information. You know—‘I lost my job, can’t afford my rent. Will I get kicked out?’”
The biggest challenges, Khan says, are endemic within our housing and legal systems. In New Jersey, major facets of those systems hinge on a 1970 state Supreme Court case focused primarily on a landlord’s responsibility to make repairs. That legal finding doesn’t consider the ways in which the rental landscape has changed—with prices escalating, wages stagnating, and landlords and management companies wielding more power. “The issue,” Khan says, “is a lack of enforceability and accountability.”
As COVID-era rental moratoriums are lifted, the problem will only get worse, says Khan. But he’s in it for the long haul—and eager to explore new ways to help tenants, such as equipping them with more digital tools. “I’m passionate about scaling education and knowledge for catalysts in the housing justice movement,” he says. With legal expertise and technology in action, “we can accelerate a culture shift.”