|David B. Bryson has spent virtually his entire professional life in the
world of legal services for the poor, most of them devoted to housing law. His
contributions range from litigation to legislation, from organizing to teaching. So
determined is he to handle the nuts and bolts of problems faced by the poor that he has
declined several overtures to step up to administrative jobs.
He is a "lawyer's
lawyer," says Gideon Anders, Bryson's boss at the National Housing Law Project in
Oakland. "I can think of no person in the legal services housing community. . . who
has consistently advanced the development and delivery of legal services to the poor as
much as David has for the past 29 years."
In recognition of Bryson's distinguished contributions, the State Bar awarded him the
Loren Miller Legal Services Award, its highest honor, early this month.
"He is the best of us," wrote David M. Madway, a San Francisco attorney with
Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton who worked with Bryson for 16 years. "I have
never encountered anyone with a greater, or more determined, sense of integrity."
Bryson, 58, began his legal services career after a two-year stint teaching law in
Ghana, which followed a clerkship for the late California Chief Justice Roger J. Traynor.
He had graduated from Princeton University and Columbia Law School with honors, amassing
an impressive resume of academic achievements.
Returning to the United States in 1970, Bryson signed on as a staff attorney at the
National Housing Law Project, then affiliated with the University of California at
He departed for four years to serve as a staff lawyer at the Cooperative Legal Services
Center, a backup operation for California Rural Legal Assistance, before returning to the
housing project for good. He currently serves as NHLP's deputy director.
An admittedly arcane area of poverty law, housing law also is one of its most complex
specialties. The federal government provides some kind of housing assistance to millions
of Americans who reside in units operated by literally dozens of programs, Anders
Each program has its own sets of laws, regulations, handbooks and policy directives
which "rival the tax code," he says.
Bryson's expertise is so well-known that every legal services lawyer who faces a
housing issue should first read what Bryson has written in various manuals and then call
Bryson for advice, says Florence Wagman Roisman, an associate law professor at Indiana
University who has worked with Bryson on housing litigation. He is such a respected
expert, she says, that "no responsible housing advocate in the United States would
undertake to do anything out of the ordinary without first consulting David Bryson."
Among the numerous
cases on which Bryson worked, perhaps the most critical victory for public housing
residents is Wright v. City of Roanoke, a 1987 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court
reversed an appellate court and ruled that residents of public housing may file a private
action against federal housing authorities to protect their right to not pay more than 30
percent of their income for rent.
Roisman said Bryson's work on the case was essential to winning "a legal victory
which has benefitted literally millions of public housing residents."
In addition to litigation, Bryson has drafted hundreds of legislative changes to
federal public and subsidized housing programs, works with community organizations as a
champion of tenants' rights, and has written widely in the area of housing law, including
authoring manuals which serve as the bibles of public housing tenants' rights.
But his admirers cite Bryson's willingness to advise and assist other housing advocates
as his greatest contribution. "In that capacity, he has no equal," says San
Francisco attorney Richard M. Pearl, who has worked with Bryson since the 1970s.
Anders, too, points to Bryson's availability and willingness to share his knowledge and
analytical skills with attorneys from around the country seeking guidance .
That availability is scaled back by a recent diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer, which
has forced Bryson to curtail his legal work.
Recognition of his contributions to legal services is long overdue, Anders says,
explaining that it is not part of Bryson's self-effacing nature to draw attention to
himself. "David is not only an exceptionally bright and dedicated individual who has
devoted his life to helping the poor," he said. "He also is an extremely caring
and considerate individual who gives of his time freely to assist others in securing
social justice for the poor."