WHEN YOU CONSIDER SCOTT HUGO’S TRAJECTORY since high school, he comes across as an overachiever: a dual degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, in political science and history; a Rhodes Scholarship and an MPhil in international relations from Oxford University; a joint Juris Doctor/Master in Public Policy from Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School. But Hugo is disarmingly modest about his accomplishments.
“The way I look at it,” he explains, “is that when you’ve had the opportunities that I’ve had, when you’ve had supportive family and teachers, when you’ve had the privilege that I have, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. I wouldn’t call it overachieving; I would call it doing my best to live up to that responsibility.”
That responsibility to give back to the community, to others struggling to get by, and to often-ignored populations led Hugo, who is now a housing-justice attorney for the Oakland City Attorney’s Office, to a life of public service not far from where he grew up. He attended De La Salle High School in Concord, California, just outside San Francisco. The school’s motto, “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve,” made a lasting impression on him. But it was a horrific incident that started him thinking about a life of service focused on justice and injustice.
“A couple of weeks before my senior year, one of my football teammates was murdered,” Hugo says. “Terrance Kelly. He was a year ahead of me, had a full ride to the University of Oregon on a football scholarship. He was murdered over a basketball court dispute.” His friend’s death left Hugo confused and made a deep impact.
“I knew about injustice in the world, and I knew about some of the injustices here in the Bay Area,” he says. “But to have a friend and teammate who was my same age, 18 years old, have his life end in that way, with no justification for why his path should be any different than mine, really underscored for me that people were living fundamentally different lives in different Americas based on their ZIP code, their race, and their socioeconomic status.”
After college—first close to home, at UCLA, and then further afield, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford—Hugo knew he wanted to go to law school but was also still searching for a way to give back to his community in the East Bay area. “The question for me at Oxford—an extraordinary opportunity to spend two years of my life abroad and meet people from around the world and ask what values are central to my life—was where do I contribute to fighting the world’s fight?” The answer came to him when he returned to the United States and enrolled at Harvard, pursuing an ambitious joint degree at the Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.
“I was always really fascinated with the intersection of law and public policy,” Hugo says. “And in particular, the ways in which the systems, the laws, and the policies that we build as a society set up the conditions for justice. They either set up people to flourish, or they amplify the injustices within society. I knew a legal career would enable me to fight for changes in the laws and to enforce them. But that public-policy element was always a key passion and frame and perspective for me. What drew me so much to the Kennedy School, to be honest, was the idea of being part of this community.”
“Hugo evidenced his commitment to environmental policies and impact in his final Integrated Work Project required for the joint Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School students in the MPP/JD program,” says HKS Senior Policy Advisor, Chief of Staff, and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy Sarah Wald, who teaches a seminar with Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government, in which the students complete intensive projects. “It is the only time we have had a paper about the policy and legal aspects of mattress dumping, and it was a great project.”
Hugo feels that the students at the Kennedy School, as much as anything else, contributed to his growth: “I learned so much from the people around me.” Also key were the opportunities available outside the classroom. He received a Dubin Program Summer Fellowship, perhaps the most instrumental push to his career. It supported him in undertaking a summer internship with the Neighborhood Law Corps, a unit within the Oakland City Attorney’s Office.
“The Dubin Fellowship allowed me to spend time with attorneys who were doing the work I envisioned,” he says. “It really affirmed that this is where I want to be.” After leaving Harvard, Hugo joined the staff of the Neighborhood Law Corps. He’s been with the attorney’s office ever since. “Working in partnership with community-based organizations in support of tenants who themselves are directly in the fight was something I was passionate about and could run with,” he says.
“I can’t tell you how much it means to know that government is fighting for us.”
More than the cases he has won as an attorney with the Oakland City Attorney’s Office, Hugo remembers the people whose lives have been transformed. He can still hear the joy in Wei Bin Ma’s voice, for example, when Hugo’s office won a victory for Ma and other residents of a single-occupancy hotel, often considered the housing of last resort in the vanishing affordable housing of Oakland’s Chinatown. Ma was distressed when the hotel’s new investor-owners reduced the number of bathrooms available to tenants and removed their Chinese New Year decorations, among other changes. Hugo recognized those actions as attempts to evict the tenants, “to make their life incredibly miserable.” Seeing Ma as a powerful independent advocate, Hugo and the city attorney’s office partnered with a private civil rights firm and the Asian Law Caucus, a legal and civil rights organization serving Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and the three parties brought a successful suit against the building’s owners.
“The tenants immediately assumed that if the government was going to get involved, it would get involved on the side of the wealthy,” Hugo recalls. He remembers how moved Ma was that Hugo was on his side. “I can’t tell you how much it means,” Ma told Hugo, “to know that government is fighting for us.”
Barbara Johnson and Chantal Dyer are also on Hugo’s mind when he thinks about the struggles facing hardworking Oakland residents—so much so that he keeps a photograph of Johnson and her grandchildren on his desk. Hugo’s team was notified of a demolition company that was coating a neighborhood in construction dust and debris. “This company chose a mixed-use commercial/residential West Oakland neighborhood,” Hugo explains. “Because of the neighborhood’s predominantly Black community and its long history of experiencing environmental racism, the company believed, wrongly, that it could operate with impunity there.” The residents, including Johnson and Dyer, said they were having trouble breathing because of the construction debris. Hugo filed a successful suit against the owners to stop the operation, fueled by the sheer will and dedication of the neighborhood’s residents.
“This case, being able to fight alongside the community members, will always be one of the greatest privileges in my life,” Hugo says. The declaration Dyer provided in support of the case has stayed with him throughout his career. She wrote:
“For me, this lawsuit is about generations—specifically, the next generation. My kids witnessed the injustice of what [the owner] was doing to their community, and they saw their parent and grandparents standing up against that wrong. [This company] could have been here for years, continuing to contaminate the neighborhood. Instead, this has sent a different message that what they were trying to do in our neighborhood won’t be tolerated. The next generation now knows that message and will take it with them in the years to come.”
Return for the community, stay for the justice
Hugo has now been with the Oakland City Attorney’s Office for seven years. “It is a privilege to work for someone like City Attorney Barbara J. Parker, who leads with her values front and center and who fights for justice,” he says. He was named the first lawyer of a newly formed affirmative-litigation unit, the Housing Justice Initiative. It focuses on protecting the rights of Oakland tenants and helping preserve affordable housing—part of the “three P’s of housing justice”: protection, preservation, and production.
“The Housing Justice Initiative is a recognition that at this very moment in time we have a unique role to play in protecting tenants’ rights and helping them stay in their homes,” Hugo explains. “What we do is not going to solve the housing crisis; no individual or government can do that on its own. But we all have different roles that we can play. And by helping keep people, particularly low-income tenants of color, in their homes, we can limit the harm and help buy time for some of those additional solutions to come into play.”
Some of those solutions may well result from his own work.
“I chose to begin my career locally,” he says, “to be grounded in community and to recognize that I can be part of this fight and contribute right here in my own backyard. The more that we build out this work and show what local government or government more generally can do when it comes to enforcing housing rights—that is something that can be scaled everywhere.”
As Hugo looks back on his Kennedy School experiences: the community of students; the Center for Public Leadership (“that conversation with [acclaimed civil rights activist and lawyer and HKS alumnus] Bryan Stevenson!”); the Zuckerman, Ash Center, and Dubin Summer fellowships he was fortunate to receive, Hugo appreciates the power of his Harvard law and public policy degrees in preparing him for a career fighting in behalf of East Bay residents. “I am incredibly indebted to the opportunities HKS gave me and the investment they made in me,” he says. “I am honored to spend my career trying to make good on that investment.”
Scott Hugo photographed at Frank Ogawa Plaza near Oakland’s City Hall by Josh Edelman.