Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

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. 

 

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