Equal Rights Center Welcomes Matthew Handley to its Board of Directors
By Nick Adjami
January 28, 2021
In December, the ERC’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to add civil rights attorney and longtime ERC collaborator Matt Handley to the organization’s Board. The ERC is thrilled to have such a trusted expert and longstanding friend of the organization join in the shared responsibility for governance of the organization.
Nick Adjami, the ERC’s Outreach & Engagement Coordinator, met virtually last week with Matt to discuss this exciting development. They discussed Matt’s career, his past work with the ERC, and his vision for the future.
NA: Welcome to the ERC!
MH: Thanks! I’m excited. I’ve been involved with the ERC in one way or another since 2004, so it’s great to be able to continue to do meaningful work with you.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Originally I’m from Texas, and I went to law school in Texas as well. I think what led me to law school was that I was a Peace Corps volunteer after college. I was posted in Nepal and it was while I was there that I realized that I wanted to work on things affecting policy. My undergraduate degree was in engineering and I found that the technical stuff just wasn’t moving me as much as some of the policy burdens and inequalities I encountered.
So I went to law school and then moved to DC. One of my first jobs here in DC was at the law firm Cohen Milstein, and I had the opportunity to work with the Equal Rights Center in the accessible design and construction field. We brought a case against Archstone that became a very large nationwide case to bring Archstone apartments into compliance with the Fair Housing Act. We succeeded in making modifications to literally thousands of units at these complexes across the country to ensure that they were accessible to tenants with disabilities. That couldn’t have happened without the civil rights testing that the ERC did at all those properties. And that actually launched a lot of other accessible design and construction cases that the ERC took on over the next ten years.
I stayed at Cohen Milstein for about ten years and then became the litigation director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which gave me the opportunity to work even more closely with the ERC, since the Lawyers’ Committee is the ERC’s primary legal counsel. It was during that time I got to meet Kate (the ERC’s Executive Director) and work on countless ERC initiatives in the fields of disability rights, housing, employment, and more.
I left there about two and a half years ago to start my own law firm with two colleagues – Handley, Farah & Anderson – where I continue to focus on civil rights matters, and as a firm we work to bring into compliance companies that are committing wrongdoing.
You mentioned your trip to Nepal – could you talk more about what inspired you to pursue civil rights work?
I was there for two years living in a relatively rural part of the country, and a lot of the technical assignments that I was trying to accomplish were stymied because of things like corruption, more than they were for lack of resources or lack of technical know-how. You had local politicians deciding against a community’s interest. I didn’t understand much about the law at that time, but I realized I wanted to go and learn how to sue companies that were doing bad things – that was kind of the simplistic vision I had. I went into law school with that goal in mind and took some twists and turns along the way, but that’s ultimately what I’ve been focused on doing since.
Do you have a favorite case you’ve worked on with the ERC?
Th Archstone case is a favorite for sure since it started the whole relationship, and because we really got to see the enormous impact that it had on the industry. I’ve also worked on several source of income discrimination cases with the ERC and there too I’ve been able to see a huge impact. The multi-family housing industry is a much more accessible place today than it was fifteen years ago because of the ERC’s civil rights testing program and these types of enforcement actions. Now developers are much more mindful of making sure they meet accessibility requirements. Similarly, source of income discrimination is much less common in DC than it was. It’s not perfect by any means, there’s still a lot of work to do, but compared to other cities it’s very good, and I think that’s largely thanks to the ERC’s efforts. I’m privileged to have played a role in those cases.
What is it about the ERC that most excited you to join our Board of Directors?
Civil rights testing has an extremely integral place in the history of civil rights in this country. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily focus on or understand that – with the Civil Rights Movement and the federal Civil Rights Acts of the 60s – there were a lot of very overt instances of discrimination around the country: explicit racist covenants on homes, restrictions on employment, things that were on their face discriminatory. The country has improved in that regard, but what’s happened is discrimination has become subtler. It’s still there but it’s hidden from view, and the only way that it can really be brought to light is through civil rights testing. A bona fide applicant for a job or for housing may have no idea that they’ve been discriminated against. They may not know the reason they’ve not been hired or been told that there’s no housing available. That’s the thing that has always excited me about the ERC. And, more so than any other organization in the country, I’m drawn to the ERC’s cross-disciplinary approach. It’s not focused solely on housing or solely on employment, but looks at this from the point of view of, “Where are our most vulnerable communities potentially being discriminated against and how can we uncover it?” So that’s what excites me the most, and I’m eager to assist the ERC in identifying new areas to test and developing new approaches to testing.
Well I think you’ll have a lot of opportunities to do that with us. Thanks and again, welcome!
The ERC is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington DC and nationwide. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org.