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Written by Deborah Cuevas Hill

Nov 05

2010

Legal Aid Testifies Strongly in Favor of Extension of Rental Housing Act

Deborah Cuevas Hill, Senior Staff Attorney

On November 3, 2010, Debbie Cuevas Hill, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, testified before the D.C. City Council in support of Bill 18-863 which would extend the Rental Housing Act of 1985 (“the Act”) for 10 years.  See Bill 18-863 – Rental Housing Commission Reform Amendment Act of 2010.  (The Act originally had a sunset provision of twenty years, meaning the Act was set to expire in 2005.  The Act was extended for another 5 years in 2005.)  The Act includes crucial rent control protections for tenants. 

In 1985, when the Act was passed, the Council made the following findings:

(1) There is a severe shortage of rental housing available to citizens of the District of Columbia (“District”).

   (2) The shortage of housing is growing due to the withdrawal of housing units from the housing market, deterioration of existing housing units, and the lack of development of new or rehabilitation of vacant housing units.

   (3) The shortage of housing is felt most acutely among low- and moderate-income renters, who are finding a shrinking pool of available dwellings.

   (4) The cost of basic accommodation is so high as to cause undue hardship for many citizens of the District of Columbia.

In our testimony, Legal Aid bemoaned the fact that the stark findings that were true in 1985 are even more true today.  A recent DC Fiscal Policy Institute study found that nearly all low-income DC households have unaffordable housing costs.  (See  D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Nowhere to Go (Feb. 5, 2010) at 4 .  Therefore, Legal Aid not only supported an extension of 10 years, but also urged the Council to provide a more permanent extension to the Act until the need for such legislation no longer exists.

Oct 05

2009

Favorable Settlement For Section 8 Client

Deborah Cuevas Hill

Deborah Cuevas Hill

What obligation does a landlord receiving a subsidy from the government have when an apartment burns down, through no fault of the tenant, forcing the tenant into homelessness?  Legal Aid just obtained a very favorable settlement for a client in precisely these circumstances.  Handing the client the check in the amount of $15,000 was among the most satisfying moments in my Legal Aid career.

There is a severe shortage of affordable housing in the District of Columbia.  The affordable housing stock is shrinking and very low income residents are paying high percentages of their income just for shelter.  As a result, a housing subsidy may make the critical difference between shelter and homelessness.  In this case, the failure of a landlord to move promptly to provide housing had just that effect. 

Ms. Mead (whose name has been changed to protect confidentiality) had lived in her apartment with her two minor children for nearly 10 years.  Her landlord privately owns the building and is a participant in the federally subsidized Project Based Section 8 Program.  This means that her landlord receives federal funds to offer affordable apartments to eligible individuals.   

When a fire destroyed Ms. Mead’s home of ten years, she was devastated.  Not only had she lost her personal belongings, but she no longer had a place to stay.  Although her landlord had other subsidized units, the landlord refused to provide her with an alternate place to stay.  The landlord then took its time in fixing up the apartment.

In the interim, Ms. Mead and her children were rendered homeless and were forced to live separately.  Because her subsidy was tied to her unit, she was not able to rent a different apartment at a price she could afford.  She was left with no choice but to wait until her landlord reinstated her to her unit.   

Legal Aid filed a complaint against Ms. Mead’s landlord, first, to get her re-instated to the apartment, and, second, to provide compensation for the landlord’s taking so long to repair the apartment.  During the litigation, it became clear that the landlord had made few efforts to provide for Ms. Mead’s return to her apartment.  We suspect that the landlord was hoping that if it waited long enough, Ms. Mead would simply go away. In the end, it took 17 months before Ms. Mead and her family were able to return to the apartment.  Her landlord initially filed papers arguing that it was not responsible for making the repairs.  With the possibility of a trial awaiting, however, the landlord ultimately agreed to settle the case, paying the client $15,000.  This money will be life-changing for this client, who ordinarily receives around $500 in income monthly.

Several attorneys at Legal Aid staffed this case, including Julie Becker, Beth Harrison, and myself.  We are thankful for the pro bono support we received from attorneys David B. Killalea and Kami Quinn at Gilbert LLP.