March 3, 1950 — Feb. 23, 2023 

Picture the kind of courtroom where landlords go to evict their tenants: loud and crowded, with the landlords — but rarely the tenants — represented by counsel. Yale Law School clinical professor Anika Singh Lemar describes it like this: “Clerks and landlord lawyers alike … doing their utmost to resolve a case, which is to say, take a person’s home away, without wasting the judge’s time with facts, law, or argument.”

Into this fray Jay Pottenger ’71 sent the law students he trained at the Yale Housing Clinic, arming them with a vigorous understanding of the law and a powerful drive for justice. From discovery through appeals, Lemar wrote in The Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law, they “litigated the heck out of their clients’ cases.”

It was just one of the ways Pottenger had a profound impact on not only his students, but the community of New Haven, Connecticut. He was a clinical law professor at Yale, where he started teaching in 1980, but perhaps his title should have been “social justice warrior.”

“He was always, always out trying to make the world a better place,” says his wife, Sue Wharfe.

Once, Pottenger worked to bring a supermarket to a local food desert, she says. When the AIDS epidemic began, he fought to get treatment for Connecticut inmates with HIV. And, not content with helping individual tenants keep their homes under the law, he went after whole systems.

“Jay was a force of nature in the civil rights and social justice legal world.”

— Erin Boggs
Open Communities Alliance executive director

In 2013, he co-founded a civil rights organization called Open Communities Alliance (OCA). Executive Director Erin Boggs says one case brought by OCA held the Department of Housing and Urban Development accountable for “uninhabitable conditions” in government subsidized housing; another targeted a suburb that was zoned almost exclusively for single-family homes. “Jay was a force of nature in the civil rights and social justice legal world,” Boggs says.

Yale Law Dean Heather Gerken ’91 tells PAW by email that Pottenger’s many accolades are “a testament to the fierce advocacy, tireless commitment, and generous spirit with which he approached lawyering and legal education.” His legacy, she writes, is what he leaves behind: “a generation of students inspired by him to devote their careers to serving others.”

The oldest child in a family of six children, Pottenger studied urban affairs at Princeton before earning his law degree from Yale in 1975. He met Wharfe on an airplane, and they have three children. She says he loved soccer and was a lifelong fan of Princeton sports.

He was also a crazy driver, she says, speeding down the shoulder on highways, careening around corners, and leaving his car in places that weren’t parking spots. Wharfe likens it to how he did all things — intense and relentless — and says it was a minor miracle he never got into a serious crash. She’s wondered whether some kind of angel was protecting him, maybe as a thank-you for all the good he did in the world.

Constance Royster, a longtime friend who co-chaired OCA’s board with Pottenger, says he liked to fight his parking tickets in court, pointing out broken meters and unfair rules. “He was really fighting for the every man, the every person, the every human,” Royster says. For him it was always about giving people — all people — the opportunity to better themselves and their families.

“He was in so many ways one of a kind,” Royster says. “He wasn’t perfect. None of us are perfect. But his purpose for being on this Earth was really fulfilled for the time he was here.”

Elisabeth H. Daugherty is PAW’s digital editor.