Written by Beth Harrison

Mar 18


The D.C. Council and D.C. Superior Court Respond to the COVID-19 Crisis With Emergency Measures to Protect Tenants

Within the past few days, both the D.C. Council and the D.C. Superior Court have enacted emergency measures to protect tenants during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Emergency legislation passed by the D.C. Council yesterday contains several critical protections for tenants. Legal Aid worked closely with other advocates and with Committee Chairs Anita Bonds (Housing) and Charles Allen (Judiciary) and their staff, as well as Chairman Phil Mendelson and his staff, to ensure that tenants will be protected as the current crisis unfolds. Read more →

May 21


Abusive “Rent Concession” Practices Threaten District’s Rent Control Program

Rent control is the District’s largest affordable housing program, covering more than 80,000 units and protecting hundreds of thousands of tenants from displacement. It also is a program under attack. Too often, landlords are able to take advantage of loopholes in existing law to impose large rent hikes, at times to levels far above market, forcing long-time residents out of their homes and eroding the long-term affordability of rent control units.

The Washington City Paper published an article last week highlighting an abusive practice that some landlords engage in once they take these large rent increases. Landlords will advertise and charge lower rent amounts, offering tenant “rent concessions”. Tenants are told that higher rent levels are on the books but will not be charged. But when it comes time to renew a tenant’s lease, many of these landlords threaten to impose the higher rent amount and coerce the tenant into agreeing to a rent increase far higher than what rent control ordinarily would allow. Read more →

Apr 26


Regulations Adopted for D.C. Mold Remediation Law

On Friday, the Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) released important new regulations requiring landlords to inspect and remediate mold in rental housing.  The final regulations, which implement the Air Quality Amendment Act of 2014, create one of the strongest regulatory frameworks in the country for ensuring that tenants do not have to live with indoor mold. Read more →

Dec 18


Study Reveals Brutal Realities for Tenants Facing Eviction

Earlier this month, the Public Justice Center issued a new study examining what happens to tenants facing eviction for nonpayment of rent in Baltimore City.  The study – Justice Diverted: How Renters Are Processed in the Baltimore City Rent Court – makes a powerful case that tenants sued for eviction need the guiding hand of counsel in order to ensure their rights are enforced.  While eviction procedures in Baltimore and the District of Columbia are different in many respects, the study offers many observations that our experience tells us hold true right here in the District.

Only 5 to 10 percent of tenants facing eviction in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court are represented by counsel, while over 90 percent of landlords have attorneys.  As a result, far too many tenants fail to raise defenses and instead sign one-sided repayment agreements that may inevitably and unnecessarily result in their eviction.  Read more →

Jun 03


Bill Passes to Address Mold in Rental Housing

The D.C. Council unanimously passed a bill that would, for the first time ever, require landlords to address mold in rental housing. Legal Aid, and our partners who advocated for this bill, believe this is an important step towards helping many of our clients who live with mold in their homes.
Read more →

Jan 03


Legal Aid Testifies before D.C. Council on Bill Regarding Mold in Rental Housing

Lauren Godles and I testified yesterday before the City Council on legislation that could have a significant impact on tenants – especially low-income tenants – throughout the District of Columbia: Bill 20-569, the Air Pollution Disclosure and Reduction Act of 2013. The Bill includes requirements for landlords to disclose information about mold in residential housing to their tenants. It also grants authority to the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) to issue regulations for the inspection and citation of mold.

Far too many of Legal Aid’s housing clients struggle with mold in their homes. They are rightfully concerned about the significant deleterious effects of mold on their own health and the health of their families. In some cases, doctors or other health care providers have warned the tenants that the presence of mold in their homes may be causing new health problems or exacerbating pre-existing conditions such as asthma. These health effects are particularly acute for the elderly, young children, and individuals already in poor health – groups that too often are living in poverty and struggling simply to maintain their housing. Read more →

Aug 20


Washington Post Articles Highlight Opportunities, Challenges Presented by Rapid Re-housing Program

Beth Harrison, Supervising Attorney & Director, Court Based Legal Services Project

Beth Harrison, Supervising Attorney & Director, Court Based Legal Services Project

The numbers underlying the affordable housing crisis in DC are stark:

• In the past five years, the number of homeless families in the District has more than doubled. By Nov. 1, 2012, 3,000 families had applied for the fewer than 300 spots at D.C. General, the city’s family shelter.

• The number of public housing units in the District has dropped by nearly 1,000 in the   past decade to about 8,300. The number of housing vouchers has dropped by more than 2,600 in the past year to 11,000.

 • The waiting list to receive a public housing unit or housing voucher is 25 to 35 years    long. Only 131 families of about 50,000 left the voucher program last year. This year, an additional 200 families will leave. Because of federal budget sequestration, the D.C. Housing Authority won’t be turning those spots over to anyone new.

(Figures courtesy of the Washington Post) Read more →

Sep 09


Harsh Consequences of “One Strike” Policy Exposed in a Recent New York Times Article

Beth Harrison, Supervising Attorney & Director, Court Based Legal Services Project

Legal Aid’s Housing Unit sometimes represents tenants living in subsidized housing who are facing eviction and/or the loss of their housing subsidy under the federal “one strike” policy.  Federal law prohibits tenants from engaging in criminal activity that disturbs others, including any violent or drug-related criminal activity, on or near a subsidized housing property.  The policy applies to misdemeanors as well as felonies, regardless of whether any criminal charges were ever pursued or won.  The tenant is responsible for not only her own actions but also the actions of her household members and guests, even if she is not personally involved in any activity, does not know about it, and could not have prevented it.  The policy is truly “one strike and you’re out”:  a tenant can be evicted and lose her housing subsidy, even if she personally is innocent and offers to bar the offender. 

As you might imagine, the one strike policy can have particularly harsh consequences for our clients.  To cite one common scenario, because a young adult son possesses marijuana on the property, his mother and the rest of the family can lose their apartment and their subsidy.  Since the waiting lists for subsidized housing in D.C. are measured in terms of years rather than months, the loss of a federal housing subsidy can be devastating for a low-income family. 

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an article examining the implementation of the one strike policy by the Chicago Housing Authority.  Among the findings it reported:  86 percent of cases from 2010 had nothing to do with the primary leaseholder; 76 percent of cases that year were misdemeanors; and in the majority of cases, the defendants were found not guilty, their cases were thrown out, or they were never prosecuted.  Legal Aid has observed similar trends in the application of the one strike policy in D.C.

Apr 29


Sweeping Public Nuisance Law Threatens the Rights of DC Residents

D.C.. City Councilmembers Jim Graham and Jack Evans, supported by the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, and the Metropolitan Police Department, have introduced a sweeping proposal to create a public nuisance law in the District, authorizing broad injunctive relief to abate or enjoin "public nuisances."  The Neighborhood and Victims' Rights Amendment Act of 2009, B18-595, defines "public nuisance" broadly to include "anything that threatens the health, safety, quiet enjoyment of life or property, or security of any considerable number of reasonable persons in a defined geographic area."  The Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, or any community-based organization – which could include any group of persons organized on behalf of a community – could file suit seeking an order to enjoin or abate the nuisance.  The bill authorizes preliminary injunctive relief without a showing of irreparable harm and removes any right to a jury trial. 

Legal Aid offered oral and written testimony in opposition to the bill at a public hearing before the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary on April 19, expressing several concerns about the bill as written.  First, the law is drafted so broadly that virtually any dispute between private citizens, including landlord-tenant and tenant-tenant issues, could become swept up in this process, potentially eviscerating the District's carefully-calibrated landlord-tenant laws.  This concern is heightened by the fact that any community-based organization could file suit and obtain sweeping injunctive relief – potentially including an order for an individual to vacate their home – on 10 days' notice without a showing of irreparable harm.  Based on the experiences of our colleagues across the country in jurisdictions that have adopted public nuisance statutes, one group of vulnerable citizens who can become caught up in such laws are survivors of domestic violence, whose calls to the police and efforts to ward off their abusers can be viewed as creating a "nuisance."  We also noted that the removal of the right to trial by jury, at least in cases involving the right to possession of real property, arguably is unconstitutional.  Legal Aid urged the Council not to rush to judgment and to consider amendments that would limit the far-reaching scope of the current proposal.