On Wednesday, October 27 as part of National Pro Bono Week we hosted a discussion about the need for pro bono attorneys to represent tenants on the landlord and tenant docket. Our panelists shared the contours of the issue and provided statistics, facts, and background to enable the audience to fully understand what we mean when we discuss the coming eviction crisis. Our panelists included Judge Todd E. Edelman, Deputy Presiding Judge, Civil Division, Superior Court for the District of Columbia; Gabriella Lewis-White, Associate Director, Housing, DC Bar Pro Bono Center; Beth Mellen, Supervising Attorney, Housing Law Unit, Legal Aid Society for the District of Columbia; and John O’Connor, Partner, Steptoe & Johnson, Pro Bono Volunteer. Below is what they shared.
The affordable housing crisis is not a new concern in our community. In D.C., the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,000 per month while the average income for 20% of D.C. residents is less than $10,000 per year. The affordable housing crisis was exacerbated and highlighted during the pandemic when it became harder to keep up with household bills as unemployment increased. Evictions also affect people of color at disproportionate rates. White families have roughly 80x the wealth of black families.
Eviction is a cause of poverty, not a sign of poverty.
Evictions may lead to other struggles in the future. Children in evicted households struggle in school at higher rates. Evicted people have a 15 to 20% higher risk of losing a job. Evictions lead to higher rates of depression and suicide. Evicted families are 25-30% more likely to move into future housing with serious defects and conditions and concerns. Tenants who get evicted think they cannot do better than the conditions they are in. The pro bono attorney’s impact in the courtroom may have an impact on someone’s life beyond the eviction case.
During the pandemic, over 40,000 households lost employment income. Nearly 33,000 find it very difficult to pay bills. Nearly 25,000 households are currently behind on their rent. Over 8,000 households often do not have enough to eat.
In D.C.’s Landlord and Tenant Branch over 90% of landlords have counsel while only 10% of tenants are represented.
Impact of Pro Bono Attorneys
John shared that in his experience, represented clients almost never get evicted. He related the huge impact pro bono attorneys can have in these cases. D.C. law is favorable to tenants, but tenants can’t take advantage of those rights if they don’t know what they are or how to exercise them. That is why pro bono representation can make such a difference to a tenant.
Landlord and Tenant Court is considered a high-volume court. That means there can be between 100 to 150 cases per day on the docket. It also means tenants feel pressured to make a decision within a few minutes since the court does not have time to spend on their individual case. The simple step of a pro bono attorney filing an Answer for a tenant can have a huge impact on the outcome of the case. Since the case then gets moved to the general civil division, the investment in time and attorney’s fees for the landlord can be an incentive to settle favorably for the tenant.
Why Should You Do it?
- Client Appreciation: clients really appreciate the work you do for them. It takes a little time commitment to have a big impact on someone’s life.
- It feels good to keep people in homes.
- Experience: Pro bono attorneys build their client interviewing skills and get experience in front of judges.
- Little expertise needed: This is thought of as a niche area of the law, but you do not need to know a lot about this area. Also, most organizations provide a mentor for guidance so you will not struggle during a case.
Encouragement from a Judge
If you are concerned about your performance in front of a judge in a practice area you know little about, Judge Edelman wants you to know that judges really appreciate seeing pro bono attorneys in their courtroom. Judges know the impact pro bono attorneys provide to clients and are appreciative of the efficiency pro bono representation can bring to the court. He and the other judges on the court see the impact and encourage new pro bono lawyers to answer the call to service.