By Lori Leibowitz
Voucher discrimination is rampant in DC. Every day, new apartment ads are posted online that say no vouchers, and every day people are illegally rejected from housing because a landlord does not want to accept vouchers. This problem is so widespread and so harmful that it demanded the attention of Neighborhood Legal Services Program. Once we started working on it, we quickly realized the significant impact pro bono attorneys could have.
In 2017, NLSP piloted the idea of collaborating with government pro bono volunteers to file Office of Human Rights (OHR) complaints against landlords who turned people away from housing because they had vouchers.
Jane Garrido was one of the first pro bono attorneys to file an OHR complaint on behalf of someone experiencing voucher discrimination. She and one of her colleagues at the Department of Labor helped a man who was experiencing homelessness to navigate the OHR process and to demand justice from the landlord who had rejected him illegally.
After that first experience, Jane came back for more. She agreed to, with a co-worker, represent Ms. L, a young mother who had been illegally rejected by three landlords. Jane and her colleague, Melissa Moore, eagerly agreed to take on all three cases. Early in their representation, however, Jane and Melissa realized that Ms. L had experienced voucher discrimination not three but ten times in her search for housing thus far. Jane called and asked me if they could take on all ten cases. I thought that ten cases at the same time was too ambitious for two pro bono attorneys, so Jane and Melissa recruited three more Department of Labor colleagues to help them with these cases. Jane and Melissa filed all ten initial complaints and then coordinated the schedules of their colleagues so that Ms. L would not have to come to extra meetings.
Jane represented Ms. L at the initial OHR intakes, attended four mediations on her behalf and responded to three motions to dismiss. For one of these motions to dismiss, Jane researched exceptions to the D.C. Human Rights Act and got a favorable decision from the Office of Human Rights, namely that when an individual landlord posts on Zillow, the landlord is no longer exempt from the Human Rights Act. NLSP has been able to cite to that decision in at least two other cases, and we feel confident that it will continue to help us in other cases.
Of her work on these cases, Jane says, “Working on source of income discrimination cases has been a really positive experience for me. I particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to provide direct services to a client, and working alongside fellow SOL attorneys in my division and in [another division] who I normally wouldn’t get the chance to work with. Our team represented a client who had been rejected by multiple landlords when she asked whether they would accept her housing voucher. We were able to obtain strong settlements for her, and she was really thankful for our work.”
Indeed, as a result of Jane’s advocacy, Ms. L has received several thousand dollars in damages, and Jane continues to represent her in one of these cases.
Jane’s work has not only made a huge difference in Ms. L’s life, it has helped dozens of other people trying to find safe housing with their vouchers.
Lori R. Leibowitz is the Managing Attorney, Right to Housing Initiative at Neighborhood Legal Services Program.