By Domonique Williams and Gavette Richardson
On a hot day in late August 2014, a group of law students from Howard and Catholic Universities, along with supervisory attorneys from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, converged east of the river to meet our new clients—a group of tenants in a Congress Heights neighborhood who reported serious health and safety violations in their apartments. These residents had come together as a tenants association and had engaged with the WLCH to stand up for their rights and bring about change.
Along with our colleagues at Catholic’s clinic, we were asked to represent seven tenants facing numerous housing code violations. Although we had been given a brief overview of the situation in our clinic classes, nothing quite prepared us for the breadth of violations we encountered, or the stories that the tenants told us about their fight to improve their living conditions. We inspected each unit and found multiple violations— including infestations of mice and bedbugs, hanging and exposed electrical wires, lack of exterior lighting, broken locks on exterior doors, leaks, floods, and more.
As the late afternoon turned into evening, our group of students and lawyers stood outside to do a final assessment of the building’s conditions. We found standing water and sewage in a common hallway, rust in tubs, mold on walls, and a building-wide water heater that stopped working every time it rained (the basement flooded, extinguishing the pilot light). We also took note of the rats playing in large trash piles of old couches and dilapidated furniture outside the building, and the lack of proper safety lighting in the back.
We were left asking why any property owner would allow residents to live in such conditions. Considering that the communities surrounding Metro stations are some of the most coveted residences in the city, why would any owner allow buildings to fall into such disrepair? The WLCH lawyers suggested a horrifying answer: the worse the living conditions in the buildings, the higher the number of tenants who leave on their own, ultimately making it easier to redevelop the apartment buildings.
After notifying the housing provider of the numerous violations and receiving no response, we filed a Housing Conditions suit in Superior Court. At our initial hearing, the housing provider’s lawyer admitted that the buildings were unlivable but suggested that, because the buildings were slated for redevelopment, the housing provider should be responsible for making only the most basic repairs—even though the redevelopment could be years away. We objected to the idea that when housing providers hope to raze or sell a building they somehow become exempt from the housing code. Many of our clients spoke up to describe the horrible conditions in their building, and it was their voices that seemed to persuade the judge that enforcement of the housing code should not turn on the housing provider’s redevelopment plans.
In the months after our initial hearing, we worked tirelessly for our clients. We sent letters to property managers, participated in court-appointed housing inspections, worked with opposing counsel to organize repair efforts, and represented our clients in court. Ultimately, all of the conditions were abated, but the redevelopment of the area is still pending. In light of this experience, we have also tried to amplify our clients’ voices in the redevelopment process; we recently testified at a Zoning Commission hearing related to the redevelopment.
Our experience representing these clients was invaluable. It not only gave us courtroom experience but also opened our eyes to the severity and ubiquity of housing problems faced by DC residents, particularly those in disadvantaged neighborhoods east of the river. We still think about these tenants and wish them the best in their ongoing efforts to protect and enforce their right to safe housing.
Domonique Williams and Gavette Richardson are rising third-year law students at the Howard University School of Law. They represented tenants from the Congress Heights neighborhood in housing litigation as part of their work with Howard’s Fair Housing Clinic.