By Craig Welkener As DC's affordable housing crisis deepens, Beth Harrison and other advocates have created an innovative program for people on the brink of eviction, pushing the boundaries of what has been possible in legal aid. By identifying at-risk tenants even before their eviction notices arrive, the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project is making real help more available than ever before. Although housing laws in the District are complex, the vast majority of individuals facing eviction are too poor to pay for an attorney. Legal services have historically been limited to those with the time to track down a nonprofit lawyer ahead of time, or those who take advantage of last minute, on-the-spot help provided by the Landlord Tenant Court-Based Legal Services Project. That project, which provides housing attorneys on a same-day basis, was funded by the city in 2007. However, that paradigm has begun to change, with the start of the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project. Beth Harrison, the director of the project, has worked in the trenches from the beginning. After earning her law degree from Harvard, Harrison arrived at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia in 2005 as an entry-level housing attorney. At that time, Legal Aid's housing law program consisted of only three full-time staff attorneys, one fellow, and two loaned attorneys from law firms. The work received a boost in 2007, when the DC Council appropriated funds to subsidize legal counsel for the poor. Legal Aid's housing work has grown since then to twelve permanent lawyers and three loaned associates. As Harrison explains, these changes have meant that advocates can serve more clients, and "a big piece of that has been the city's choice to appropriate that funding." But vast gaps remain. The DC Bar Pro Bono Center reports that currently 95% of tenants remain unrepresented, while 90% to 95% of landlords pay for an attorney. Systemic problems call for sustainable solutions. And the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project—run by Legal Aid, Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and the DC Bar Pro Bono Center—is futuristic in its design. "We are reviewing all eviction cases as they are filed with the court," Harrison explains. For approximately one out of every seven cases involving subsidized housing, "we send a letter saying we want to represent you." If the tenant accepts the help, a lawyer begins working on their case pro bono—even before the tenant receives an eviction notice. The program began in 2015, and relies on a smorgasbord of local nonprofits and law firm pro bono work to accomplish the mission. By providing help exactly when people can use it the most, the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project has the potential to truly change the norm of the unrepresented tenant. Perhaps this is the wave of the future. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie recently introduced the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016, which would increase funding for similar housing projects. Guaranteeing a broad “right to counsel … in civil cases involving fundamental human needs" is McDuffie’s long-term goal. Harrison is certainly inspired. "The legal work that we do here is incredibly challenging and rich. And the interaction with the clients of course is an ongoing benefit. It's an ongoing inspiration to keep doing the work." Craig Welkener is a volunteer with the Washington Council of Lawyers, a Ward 8 resident, and a Georgetown graduate clerking at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Low-income residents, including many East of the River, spent Snowzilla hunkered down under blankets or huddled around small space heaters. The Post describes the plight of many poor D.C. residents during the recent blizzard. For instance, a woman in Washington Highlands had to leave her oven running, with the door open, because the heat in her apartment has been broken all winter. Lack of heat can result from several circumstances facing low-income residents. D.C.'s Office of People's Counsel reports that low-income residents are often afraid to complain about their heating problems because they are worried that other social services will be discontinued if the city learns of their poor housing conditions. As explained by a housing lawyer with the Legal Aid Society for the District of Columbia, many low-income residents don't complain to their landlords for fear of eviction. And some landlords just don't properly maintain their properties—as we have previously discussed. As a result, many of D.C.'s poorest residents who went without heat during this week's historic snowstorm will continue to face similar unsafe conditions throughout the winter, even after the snow has melted.
Residents in four rent-controlled buildings in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast DC fear losing their homes to redevelopment, the Post reports. As housing costs increase across the city, residents worry that plans for a new housing complex near the proposed Washington Wizards practice facility in Ward 8 will force them out of some of the last affordable housing in the city. Of the 47 units in the current complex, only 19 are currently occupied; residents claim the property owners are failing to make repairs in an attempt to "push people out." Although denying any attempt to force residents to vacate units, the owners confirm that they are "not currently making capital improvements" to the buildings in anticipation of the development project. Meanwhile, 19 families will likely soon be searching for affordable housing in a city that's increasingly inhospitable to low-income residents. According to Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney Will Merrifield, who is representing the Congress Heights residents, the DC rental market "is so out of control that if you’re displaced from a rent-controlled apartment, it is essentially impossible to find housing." Similarly situated Ward 8 residents recently won abatement of unsanitary, unsafe housing conditions in a Congress Heights neighborhood, with the help of pro bono services from Howard and Catholic University law students.
The DC Office of Human Rights is sponsoring a Know Your Rights Workshop at the Anacostia Neighborhood Library on Tuesday, September 22, at 7:00 p.m. The workshop will cover fair housing issues, focusing on discrimination against people with vouchers or other subsidies, discrimination against people of color, people with disabilities, and other protected communities. The Anacostia Neighborhood Library is located at 1800 Good Hope Road SE, and can be reached by Metrobus routes 92, V5, W6, and W8. To request a reasonable accommodation or interpretation for the workshop, please contact Teresa Rainey at (202) 727-5343 / email@example.com by September 11.
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.
By Chinh Le & Mike Mazella Ms. Moore (name changed to maintain client confidentiality) came to Legal Aid’s office in Anacostia (the one with the Big Chair in front) for help with her eviction case. Her landlord had sued to evict her for nonpayment of rent. The Legal Aid attorney staffing the Big Chair office met with Ms. Moore that day and was able to refer her to a Legal Aid attorney at our courthouse office for further assistance with her housing issue. When Ms. Moore came to the courthouse office, her case was scheduled for a bench trial that same day. Her situation looked bleak. However, Ms. Moore credibly disputed the rent amount that the landlord was charging her. Indeed, the Legal Aid lawyer was able to determine that the landlord had unlawfully increased her rent by 30% during the initial lease term. A Legal Aid lawyer helped Ms. Moore stay in her home and avoid eviction. The attorney negotiated an agreement that reduced the balance by almost 90%, reduced Ms. Moore’s monthly rent to the correct amount going forward, and required the landlord to complete all outstanding repairs to the apartment. Ms. Moore and her attorney were able to navigate the situation together, allowing Ms. Moore to live comfortably in her home.
By Chinh Le & Mike Mazella Mr. Brown (name changed to maintain client confidentiality) and his wife came to the Big Chair office in Southeast D.C., because they had been sued as squatters by their landlord. A few weeks prior, they had received a favorable administrative decision resolving a tenant petition they filed against their landlord to contest an illegal rent increase. Rather than accept or appeal the administrative order, the landlord ignored it and sued Mr. Brown as a squatter in landlord-tenant court. The case was based on the landlord’s claim that Mr. Brown, who had rented his current unit since 1994, was not a tenant of that unit, and was only permitted to reside in a studio unit that he had previously rented from 1986–1994. Legal Aid filed a motion to dismiss the landlord-tenant case. The pro se landlord decided that she needed to hire an attorney, which she did and shortly thereafter voluntarily dismissed the case before the hearing. Mr. Brown had been struggling with complications from a stroke and has great difficulty communicating and getting around. Throughout the hearings, Mr. Brown’s attorney met him and his wife at the Big Chair office and at their home, so that Mr. Brown could avoid having to travel and cut down his transportation time to the court. What began as a mentally and potentially physically stressful problem for Mr. Brown and his wife ended happily as a result of Legal Aid’s help through our presence at the Big Chair.