Born July 3, 1918 in the Bronx, New York, Shirley Adelson Siegel was raised in New York City by Jewish immigrant parents. The Great Depression hit the family hard: when Siegel was 13 she and her family were evicted from their Manhattan home when her father, a struggling businessman, failed to make rent. However, despite the family's financial woes, Siegel excelled in school. After graduating at the top of her high school class in the mid-1930s, she enrolled at Barnard College and pursued an undergraduate degree in government. She graduated from Barnard with honors in 1937.
Siegel's foray into housing and redevelopment policy occurred while she was a student at Barnard. Through the National Youth Administration, an employment program financed through President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, she attained an internship at the New York Legislative Service and earned 50 cents an hour analyzing housing and urban development legislation. It was there that Siegel was first introduced to public housing, slum clearance, redevelopment, and discrimination in the housing market - issues that would later come to define her work and her legacy.
In 1938, Siegel briefly matriculated at the London School of Economics and then enrolled in Yale Law School, where she stood out as the only woman in a class of 125 men. Keeping true to her interests in public policy and housing, she chose to specialize in property law - which at the time was considered to be a young, progressive, and obscure arm of the legal profession. She received her law degree from Yale in 1941 and joined the New York State Bar shortly thereafter.
Initially, Siegel struggled to find work after graduating from Yale, due in large part to what she described as the double handicap of being both female and Jewish. Finally, in 1942, she accepted a position at Proskauer, Rose, and Parkus where she once again stood out - this time, as the firm's first-ever female attorney. But even while she worked in private practice, Siegel never lost sight of her passion for public interest law; her evenings and weekends were spent volunteering at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she assisted with the Supreme Court case against Japanese internment camps that had been established during World War II. In 1945, she left her position at Proskauer to become Executive Director of the newly-founded New York Citizens Housing Council.
Siegel moved to Los Angeles in 1947 after marrying her husband, Elwood, who worked in the entertainment industry. At the time, Los Angeles was in the midst of a housing crisis that was rooted in a combination of factors, including a shortage of adequate units for World War II veterans, overt racism in the real estate market, the proliferation of slums, and a lack of action on the part of elected officials. It was also in the late 1940s that the nation was embroiled in controversy over the Taft-Ellender-Wagner housing bill, which allocated federal money for slum clearance, redevelopment, and the construction of tens and thousands of units of low-rent public housing in many of the nation's largest cities, including Los Angeles.
Upon her arrival in Los Angeles, Siegel was hired as Executive Director of the Los Angeles Citizens Housing Council, an organization that advocated for fair housing and community development policies in the greater Los Angeles area. It was under Siegel's direction that the Housing Council spearheaded a ballot initiative, California Proposition 14, that called for the creation of a comprehensive, state-administered public housing program. While the measure was ultimately defeated at the ballot box, it nonetheless laid the foundation for many future attempts at housing reform.
Siegel also engaged in a considerable amount of pro bono committee work related to housing and urban development in Los Angeles. She volunteered for the California Housing Association, first as its Southern California Secretary and later on its Board of Directors; for the Los Angeles County Conference on Human Relations, as its Housing Committee chair; for the League of Women Voters' Los Angeles Chapter, as its Legislative Action Committee chair; for the American Jewish Committee, as a staff representative for its Legal and Civic Action Committee; and for the California Federation for Civic Unity, on its Board of Directors.
In 1950, Siegel and her husband left California and returned to New York, but her work in public interest law was far from being over. She continued to serve as an active participant in committee work, and in 1959 she was tapped by New York State Attorney General's office to head its first-ever Civil Rights Bureau. For years, she served as general counsel to the city's Housing and Development Administration under Mayor John Lindsay, and she also chaired the Housing and Urban Development Committee at the New York City Bar. From 1979 to 1982, she served as Solicitor General for the state of New York.
Siegel's first husband Elwood died in 1994. In 1997 she married her second husband, Henry Fagin, who had gained notoriety in his own right as a distinguished architect, city planner, and college professor. The couple remained married until Fagin's death in 2009.
As of 2010, some 74 years after her career in housing law began, Siegel continued to practice law in New York, specializing in cases involving foreclosure, eviction, and tenants rights.