Benjamin Lefkovits started taking Spanish lessons in third grade. Spanish class soon became his favorite subject in school and instilled in him a passion for the language and culture. He has acted as translator on family vacations to Spain, but over the past year, during his sophomore year of high school, Lefkovits found a way to use his language skills for more than ordering tapas and asking directions.
The COVID pandemic wreaked havoc on affordable housing in the U.S. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a shortage of more than seven million affordable homes for more than 11 million low-income families. Eviction bans were instituted across the country that enabled tenants who had suffered pandemic-related financial setbacks to remain in their homes. So Lefkovits was surprised to come across a news story about tenants being evicted from housing despite the measures put in place to protect them.
“These were Spanish-speaking families who didn’t speak much English,” he recalls. “It sounded to me like landlords were cheating their tenants. The tenants didn’t know these laws existed, or they didn’t know how to defend themselves because they didn’t speak English well enough.”
Lefkovits, who is interested in real estate development, began calling legal clinics to learn more about what was happening. He discovered illegal evictions were a real issue, but it wasn’t until a teacher invited him to a symposium on poverty that he truly understood the extent of the crisis.
“They brought up stuff I never knew was going on,” he says. “People can’t even afford diapers and other necessary items. I never realized this was happening right here [in my community].”
He was particularly struck by the impact on families whose first language wasn’t English, which is when he realized he could put his Spanish skills to good use – by helping Spanish-speaking tenants translate their leases or other documents. In fact, he had a whole 10th-grade Spanish class that could help.
Lefkovits’ teacher and classmates loved the idea. They posted flyers throughout their Westchester County, NY, community and identified a legal clinic to support them. Lefkovits and his classmates can translate leases, legal documents, correspondence, and other communications for Spanish-speaking tenants.
Family Promise Union County in Elizabeth, NJ, has used the group’s translation services for families in its program. The group has also worked with a local attorney in New York to translate documents for a family looking to restructure their rent payment plan.
“The family doesn’t speak English, so it’s been hard for them to navigate through everything,” says Lefkovits, who hopes they can mitigate a tense situation and help the parties reach an agreement.
The program offers Lefkovits and his peers real-world Spanish language experience and a window into real estate law, tenant-landlord relations, and the financial side of property management, not to mention poverty and the current affordable housing crisis. For Lefkovits, it has even sparked an interest in law school and an aspiration to work at a legal clinic.
“We’ve learned a lot about the language, but also about how tough life can be sometimes,” says Lefkovits. “We just hope we can make a difference.”