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Written by Rachel Rintelmann

Oct 03

2017

Legal Aid and Partners Collaborate to Obtain Substantial Relief for Tenants at Terrace Manor

Last week, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Columbia approved a settlement in the matter of Terrace Manor LLC that will compensate tenants who endured severe housing code violations for years while ensuring that they will finally have access to the safe and habitable housing they deserve. Eleven tenants represented by Legal Aid will receive a substantial financial benefit totaling almost $360,000 for their years of suffering and for costs including repair bills, storage units and compensation for belongings damaged by mold and flooding. Importantly, the tenants will also receive ongoing rent protections, immediate relocation to safe housing, and the right to return to a rehabilitated Terrace Manor that will have renewed covenants ensuring it remains affordable for not just these but future tenants as well. Read more →

Mar 17

2017

Why I — and Legal Aid — stand in solidarity with LSC

Before I joined Legal Aid, I was an AmeriCorps attorney with a Legal Services Corporation-funded organization in Ohio that provides legal services to low income Ohioans in 32 counties, including mid-sized cities, small towns and rural areas.

One of the first cases I handled there involved a young mother who had purchased a manufactured home and was renting the lot beneath it from the seller of her home. When I met my client, she was current in payments on her home, but at risk of eviction from her rental lot because part of her rent payment had been allocated to fees. As a practical matter, this meant that she would also lose her home – and all of the equity she had built – because she (like many manufactured home owners) could not afford the expense of moving it if her family was evicted from the lot. Read more →

Nov 13

2015

Legal Aid’s Pilot Project Assists Clients Challenge Barriers to Re-Entry

In December 2014, I wrote about Maurice Alexander, a Legal Aid client who came to us for help when he was unable to secure housing because of an old misdemeanor conviction. This morning, the Washington City Paper published an article detailing Mr. Alexander’s story, and the lawsuit that the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs recently filed on his behalf.
Read more →

Apr 03

2015

City Paper Article Highlights Shortcomings of Rapid Rehousing

Yesterday, the Washington City Paper published a provocative piece focusing largely on the District’s Rapid Rehousing program, which has been heralded in some corners as a solution for chronic family homelessness. However, as my colleague Shirley Horng recently testified, the clients we meet — like many of those featured in the article — tell a very different story.

The Rapid Rehousing program in the District of Columbia provides four-month rental subsidies, which can be extended for up to one year. After the conclusion of the subsidy, the family is left to pay the market-level rent on their own, without further support. The idea behind the program is that with this short-term assistance, the family can increase its income or take other steps to achieve financial independence. The idea is attractive, and the goal is laudable, but the reality is that Rapid Rehousing simply does not work for most families. Read more →

Dec 09

2014

Legal Aid Client Featured in NPR Story

This past weekend, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a provocative piece on its website about the so-called “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions. The article focused on the challenges that a recent Legal Aid client had in trying to obtain housing.

The term “collateral consequences” refers to the often long-lasting impact of an individual’s criminal conviction. In many instances, the issue arises years later, often long after the sentence is served (or in some cases, suspended and never served) and the debt to society paid. These consequences can be catastrophic for individuals as they try to reintegrate into the community, but instead encounter roadblocks to securing gainful employment, stable housing, and even an education.  Read more →

Nov 30

2012

New York Times Editorial Highlights Inequity in Housing Courts, Presses for a Civil Right to Counsel

Rachel Rintelmann, Staff Attorney

An editorial published in today’s New York Times entitled “Tipping the Scales in Housing Court” describes the inequity that confronts tenants every day in local housing courts across the country. This opinion piece highlights not only the need for good, effective legal representation, but also the fiscal benefits of providing representation to low income tenants.

According to a 2008 D.C. Access to Justice Commission Report, while more than 90 percent of landlords in eviction cases are represented by counsel in the District, only 3 percent of tenants have attorneys.  Legal Aid’s Landlord Tenant Court-Based Legal Services Project was created in part to address massive inequality, and so far, in 2012 alone, we have been able to assist well over 200 individuals or families through that project.  Unfortunately, that is only a small portion of the more than 36,000 cases filed every year in landlord and tenant court, and a huge number of tenants are forced to navigate the complex laws and procedures of landlord and tenant court on their own.

Because there is no recognized legal right to counsel in landlord and tenant cases, that imbalance is likely to persist, resulting in often unjust outcomes for tenants who simply do not understand, or cannot effectively advocate for, their rights.

Nov 05

2012

Tomorrow’s Elections, from the Perspective of Legal Aid Clients

Rachel Rintelmann, Staff Attorney

The presidential election is less than a day away.  Both sides have articulated and re-articulated their positions on all of the issues they view as critical.  Throughout the long run-up to the election, there has been much discussion about issues impacting the middle class.  But, far less mention has been made of the 46.2 million Americans living in poverty (1 in 5 people in DC).

As a poverty lawyer, I have my own ideas about what is important to our client community.  But, it seems to me that the best way to understand the issues confronting those who live in poverty is to ask them.  So, I spoke to several Legal Aid clients about the issues that matter most to them this election season. Though my poll was hardly scientific, it did help me better understand some of the issues of most concern to low-income people in the District.

Ms. J says that her primary concerns are jobs, education and affordable housing.  She is a proud parent of three college students or graduates, the eldest of whom will be graduating with a PhD in psychology next year.  She says that she believes that the primary and secondary educational systems need to be improved in order to give more students access to a college education.  She also worries about the cost of college, and says that her children have paid for their education with scholarships and loans.  Ms. J also emphasizes her belief that there needs to be more affordable housing for people like herself. “We need someone to get rid of all of the slumlords,” she says, “and we need to focus on making sure people aren’t becoming homeless.”

Ms. B says that she believes that, instead of cutting programs for the poor, the government should focus on creating more effective programs to help lift people out of poverty. “If they funded programs in a better way – not just so someone can get a job for six months and then be unemployed again – but something that is actually going to build someone a career in the job market.  This is what will be helpful for the country,” she says. “They should focus on training for jobs where there is actually a need.”  Ms. B also thinks there should be a greater investment in education: “That saying, ‘the children are our future,’ is true. If our children are not trained properly, we will lose doctors, professionals, people we need to be a strong country.” 

Mr. S hasn’t missed the chance to vote in an election since 1976.  When asked what issues are most important to him, he mentions global warming and access to affordable healthcare, the latter of which is more relevant to his everyday life.  Mr. S currently works two part-time jobs for minimum wage, and is ineligible for healthcare benefits through either position. “More and more companies are avoiding giving people benefits by not hiring them as full-time employees,” he says. “There have been times in the past when I have earned barely too much income to qualify for government insurance programs, but not enough income to afford private insurance.” But, he says, if he pays for private insurance, he won’t have enough money left over to pay his other bills. This brings up another issue, the one he would raise if he had the opportunity to talk to the presidential candidates: Mr. S says he would implore the government to raise the minimum wage. Minimum wage in D.C. is $8.25/hour, but Mr. S says you just cannot live on a job that pays less than $10/hour. (Indeed, to afford the average rent in DC, studies show you’d actually need to make $28.96/hour.)  “My rent goes up by 5% every year, but my wages are stagnant.  How can I afford to pay my rent? I feel like I am moving backwards.”

It is safe to say at this late date that many of the issues articulated above won’t be a topic of conversation this election cycle.  Still, one can hope that the issues confronting those living in poverty will find their way into serious discussions after the close of election season.  Whatever your political stripe, we encourage you to have your voice heard tomorrow, and we hope that you will keep in mind the interests of the most vulnerable among us.

Dec 16

2011

Legal Aid’s Court-Based Legal Services Project Attorneys Reflect Upon Another Year of Service to Low-Income Tenants

Rachel Rintelmann, Staff Attorney

In 2007, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia began representing low-income tenants through the Court-Based Legal Services Project, funded in large part by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program and based in the Landlord-Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court.  Today, Legal Aid partners with Bread for the City to ensure that attorneys are available Monday through Friday to provide same-day representation to low-income tenants facing eviction.

On any given day, Project attorneys are prepared to handle a wide range of cases. Often, attorneys will assist tenants in court for their initial appearance, counseling them as to their legal rights, and assisting them in filing answers, seeking continuances, setting trial dates, requesting necessary repairs to their homes, and/or negotiating with their landlords. Sometimes, tenants seek assistance with more complex matters, such as requesting a temporary restraining order to force the landlord to make emergency repairs, or filing a motion to stop an eviction scheduled to take place within 24 hours.  

On some occasions, we meet with tenants on the day that their case is scheduled for trial. This was the case last week when Legal Aid attorney David Steib met with a tenant who was living in a foreclosed property.  Not only did David help the tenant negotiate for a 60% reduction in the amount of money the bank claimed was owed, he also ensured that the tenant would not be evicted and would continue to have a roof over her head for the foreseeable future. 

Cases referred to this Project often require quick thinking and research. In October, Legal Aid attorney Celine Janelle met with a tenant who was scheduled to be evicted at 2 pm that day, despite the fact that he had never received notice of an eviction case. Celine later discovered that the eviction had actually taken place several hours early, while the tenant was in Court waiting to be heard. Rather than giving up because it was too late to stop the eviction, Celine spent an hour and a half researching, drafting and arguing a somewhat atypical motion. Thanks to Celine’s efforts, the Judge ordered that the tenant, and his belongings, be restored to his home immediately. 

Even in cases without complex questions of law, Project attorneys often lend a helpful hand. 

A Spanish-speaking tenant came to the Project for help after her landlord’s attorney refused to consider evidence that she had paid all of her rent. Instead, the landlord’s attorney bullied and threatened the tenant, telling her she would be thrown out of her home within the week. Legal Aid attorney Maggie Donahue stepped in to explain the tenant’s rights, and the landlord’s attorney immediately dismissed the case with prejudice. As an additional benefit, Maggie was able to counsel the tenant in her native language. 

In addition to same-day representation, Project attorneys also provide ongoing representation for clients who need help beyond that day in court.  Often that representation is provided directly by Legal Aid attorneys, but in 2011, we also placed 30 cases with pro bono counsel, mostly through our own pro bono program.

So far in 2011, Legal Aid has handled 319 new cases through the Project, benefitting 819 people. In those cases alone, we have helped to gain over $250,000 in financial benefits for our clients.  Approximately two-thirds of these clients were from Wards 5, 7, or 8 — all areas with high concentrations of poverty. 

A 2008 D.C. Access to Justice Commission report showed that while over 90 percent of landlords in eviction cases are represented by counsel, only 3 percent of tenants have attorneys. The Project was created to help address this massive inequity, and four years later, the Project continues to make a dent in this imbalance. Legal Aid and Bread for the City attorneys have represented nearly 3,000 individuals or families through the Project since 2007. 

As affordable housing in the District becomes more and more difficult to find, low-income tenants find themselves at an increasing risk of homelessness.  Even those tenants with steady housing may find that affordable housing is substandard, and sometimes downright hazardous. Our presence in the courthouse increases our ability to monitor these and other emerging issues, and to engage in ongoing discussions about how to meaningfully address the challenges that our clients face every day. 

 

Oct 06

2011

Loaned Associates Roundtable

Rachel Rintelmann, Staff Attorney

 Legal Aid is fortunate to have developed relationships with four prominent DC law firms that provide the organization with “loaned associates” on a rotating basis. These associates typically spend six months working at Legal Aid, representing clients under the supervision of our lawyers. 

We recently bid farewell two of our loaned associates: Amy Sandra Lee and Vijay Singh. Amy is an associate with the law firm of Crowell & Moring, and Vijay is an associate with the law firm of Skadden Arps.  Both worked with the Legal Aid’s housing unit. Before they left, staff attorney Rachel Rintelmann sat down to talk to them about their experiences. 

 

What made you want to work with Legal Aid for six months? 

Vijay Singh of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

Vijay:  Since I started practicing law, I have been very interested in pro bono work and have tried to keep an open probono matter on my desk at all times. However, I felt like I wanted to dive in deeper and gain some substantive expertise in a particular area of law, which I couldn’t do with one-off cases. In addition to gaining substantive knowledge, I also wanted to work with the client population served by Legal Aid and become a more invested member of the D.C. community.  So, when the opportunity presented itself to come work at Legal Aid, I jumped at it. I had worked with several Legal Aid attorneys through the Landlord Tenant Resource Center at D.C. Superior Court, and I knew they did high quality work and had a tremendous passion for their clients.  From the attorneys I met, I thought that Legal Aid would be a good environment for me to develop an expertise in housing law.

Amy Lee of Crowell & Moring LLP

Amy:  I wanted the full and true experience of practicing public interest law at Legal Aid. I wanted the six months to immerse myself in endless possibilities: to directly work with new clients, help those clients get meaningful access to justice, learn a completely different area of law, have an impact on the DC community, and advocate in court, all while working with and learning from Legal Aid.

Has working at Legal Aid changed the way in which you view Washington, D.C.?

Amy:   For sure. My viewpoint has broadened immensely after six months of getting a glimpse into the lives of the people who fill the quadrants of the city and how they see the world.  Empathy kicks in and you can’t help but assume the viewpoint of those you talk to and advocate for daily.  And now there is more to see in D.C. – more beauty, more gloom, more hope. But unchanged to me is that this city is defined by the people who fill it. And the people are what make D.C. a most remarkable city.

Vijay:  Yes it has. Before I came to Legal Aid, I thought I knew a lot about the city, but within a few weeks of coming to Legal Aid, I realized how little I actually knew. One of my favorite activities in this job has been riding around on the city buses to visit my clients. It has allowed me to get a glimpse into the diverse neighborhoods around D.C. and waiting at the bus stops has allowed me to connect and talk with our fellow D.C. residents.  Although I have been able to see a lot of the city, the one thing that still astounds me is the immense wealth disparity that exists in this city. Working at Legal Aid has redoubled my resolve to reduce that disparity.

If you could share one lesson or experience with other private attorneys, what would it be?

Vijay: I think the most challenging, but yet rewarding part of this job has been working with clients with severe mental illness. Back at the firm, I would never have occasion to work with a client with severe mental illness, but at Legal Aid, several of my clients have some form of mental illness, ranging from bi-polar disease to various undiagnosed mental illnesses. I would encourage other private attorneys to seek out cases where the clients have mental illness because I believe it has improved my legal skills, and most importantly, they are the people who need our help the most in navigating the often complex and daunting legal system. 

Amy:  Vijay has got me thinking about the many clients I got to work with so I’ll share a client experience: Mr. A always had a smile on his face, loved to crack jokes and talk in a “Shakespeare theater voice” when we met. You wouldn’t know that he was HIV positive and lived in an apartment that was infested with bed bugs and roaches. The front door was broken; the electrical outlets were exposed; there were cracks in the wall and peeling paint. Because of the bed bugs, Mr. A had thrown all his furniture including his bed away. He was sleeping on the floor when I met him. The landlord sued Mr. A to try and evict him, alleging that Mr. A did not pay his rent. Legal Aid was able to help Mr. A prove his rent was paid, assert a counterclaim against the landlord for housing code violations, and negotiate a settlement with the landlord. The landlord not only dropped the lawsuit, but agreed to pay Mr. A money to buy new furniture, repaint the unit, and make repairs throughout the apartment. 

What song title best summarizes your experience at Legal Aid?

Amy:   Get Up Stand Up

Vijay:  R.E.S.P.E.C.T.