Written by Julie Becker

Apr 24


Victory for Museum Square Tenants

Earlier this week, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the owners of Museum Square, a 302-unit building populated entirely by low-income residents, failed to comply with D.C. law when they offered the building to the tenants with a sale price of $250 million – far in excess of the property’s market value. The offer of sale was a prerequisite to the landlord’s plan to demolish the building and replace it with high-end condominiums, apartments, and retail space. Last fall, the tenant association, represented by Legal Aid, Arnold & Porter, and the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, filed suit against the owner, claiming that $250 million was not a “bona fide offer of sale” as required by the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. The Court agreed, holding that the Act requires a price related to the current market value of the property and not a speculative future valuation.

The Washington City Paper covered the decision yesterday.

Oct 31


Legal Aid and Others File Lawsuit to Help Tenants Stay in Their Homes

Yesterday, the Museum Square Tenants Association filed a lawsuit against the owner of their apartment complex in an effort to preserve affordable housing in the building, which has 302 units for low-income D.C. residents. Legal Aid is proud to represent the tenant association along with the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, and the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP. The suit claims that the owner’s offer to sell the property for $250 million is not a “bona fide offer of sale” under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase ActRead more →

Oct 10


New Report Paints Bleak Picture for D.C. Affordable Housing

This week, the Urban Institute issued the latest chapter in its report, “Our Changing City,” illustrating how Washington, D.C. has changed over the past decade. The report describes how the influx of new residents, particularly “millennials,” is altering the city’s demographic picture, its services, and its institutions. Read more →

Apr 11


Legal Aid Testifies on Rent Increase Bill

Today, I testified before the D.C. Council in support of Bill 20-311, the Rent Control Hardship Petition Limitation Amendment Act of 2013. The legislation, if passed, would limit landlords’ ability to displace tenants based on the filing of a “hardship petition.” Read more →

Jul 03


New campaign urges public to “ReThink” public housing

Julie Becker, Supervising Attorney

Julie Becker, Supervising Attorney

According to a recent survey, 83 percent of Americans believe that every U.S. citizen deserves a decent and safe place to live.  But at the same time, a majority of those surveyed said they would not want to live close to a public housing property, and do not support having public housing in their own neighborhoods.

A new public relations initiative, ReThink , seeks to change those attitudes.  With video, music, and stories from public housing residents around the country, ReThink demonstrates how public housing in America “supports families, builds communities, fosters education, and provides stability.”

In the District of Columbia, public housing provides a critical resource for the city’s lowest-income residents.  The D.C. Housing Authority operates more than 8,300 public housing units, providing affordable homes for families, seniors, and persons with disabilities.  The waiting list for these units and DCHA’s other housing programs topped out at 70,000 applicants when it closed in April.

Across the country, there are at least half a million people waiting for a public housing unit.  The ReThink initiative helps show why support for public housing is crucial to providing hope, tackling poverty, and moving toward opportunity for so many low-income people in the U.S.

May 06


Legal Aid, as Amicus, Prevails before en banc D.C. Court of Appeals in Case Involving Contracts Entered Into by Mentally Incapacitated Persons

Julie Becker, Supervising Attorney

Julie Becker, Supervising Attorney

On May 2, 2013, the D.C. Court of Appeals issued an en banc decision holding that a contract executed by a mentally incapacitated person is not inherently void, but rather only voidable at the election of the incapacitated person or her representatives.  The ruling, which overturned an 1892 precedent, brings the District of Columbia in line with 40 other states in expanding the contracting rights of persons with mental disabilities.  The Court recognized that archaic legal notions of mental incompetence – the view that, in the words of a 1901 Supreme Court decision, “a lunatic has no mind” – “have given way to a more nuanced understanding of mental capacity,” which recognizes that a person with diminished capacity still may be able to execute beneficial and enforceable contracts.  The Court also noted that applying the modern rule would prevent others from taking advantage of a person’s mental disability by refusing to perform an otherwise fair deal; for example, an insurer could not refuse to provide coverage on the ground that the insured lacked capacity when she purchased the insurance.  In short, as the Court held, the modern rule “better ‘protects’ mentally incapacitated persons by facilitating meaningful participation in society.”

The case arose out of a landlord-tenant dispute, in which an investor who purchased property at a tax sale sought to evict the tenants living there on the ground that the prior owner was incapacitated when she leased the property as a rental.  Legal Aid submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Bread for the City, AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly, University Legal Services, and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. The Blog of the Legal Times reported on the decision late last week.



Feb 15


New Court Rule Will Improve Transparency in Landlord-tenant Cases

Julie Becker, Supervising Attorney

This week, the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the D.C. Superior Court implements a new rule that will make it easier for tenants to understand, and defend, cases for nonpayment of rent.  By requiring landlords to bring the “rent ledger” to each court date, the rule will ensure that tenants can see exactly how the landlord is accounting for their payments.  Tenants will then be in a better position to gather evidence, confirm that a balance is correct, or challenge incorrect charges on the account.

 The new rule is especially important because in many cases, the complaint – the only document a tenant may receive in the case – does not clearly state what rent the landlord alleges is due.  It may include inaccurate dates, or seek a total sum that does not square with the monthly rent.  As a result, a tenant often has no way of knowing exactly what the landlord believes she owes or why.  Compounding the problem: In the vast majority of cases, only the landlord’s attorney – not the landlord or property manager – appears in court.  That attorney often cannot explain the details underlying the claim of unpaid rent.  And, because there is no discovery in most landlord-tenant cases, the tenant never has a meaningful way to get that information. 

This situation leaves tenants to choose between fighting their cases, but without the information they need to defend themselves; or agreeing to pay money they cannot be sure they really owe.  The new discovery rule targets that problem by giving tenants better information starting from the first court date.  Landlords and their lawyers will be required to bring to court, and produce upon request, the documentation showing that rent is due.  Most often, this will be the landlord’s rent ledger, which details all the charges and payments on the tenant’s account.  At the landlord’s request, the court can also require the tenant to produce evidence of her rent payments. 

The change may seem small – but with more than 33,000 landlord-tenant cases filed each year, most of which allege nonpayment of rent, the new rule will make a difference in countless disputes.  Every day, particularly through our Court-Based Legal Services Project, Legal Aid assists tenants with rent complaints they do not understand.  Once those tenants can figure out precisely what the landlord believes they owe, they will all be in a better position to fight their cases, or to settle them on more accurate terms.

Sep 29


An Important Victory for Tenants’ Rights

Julie Becker, Senior Staff Attorney

Last week, Legal Aid secured an important victory for tenants’ rights when the Court of Appeals decided Loney and Tenants of 710 Jefferson Street Opinion. The case involved a landlord’s effort to clear his building of low-income, mostly Latino residents based on a vague and unsupported claim that he planned to rehabilitate the property.

The case began in 2004, when Steve Loney bought the building at 710 Jefferson Street NW. Shortly after taking ownership, Loney began taking steps to clear the property of tenants. First, he filed largely baseless suits to evict them. Then, in an effort to intimidate the tenants – most of whom were immigrants with limited proficiency in English – he sent notices to everyone, stating that the Immigration and Naturalization Service would “soon be conducting interviews in the building.”

Loney’s next move was to file a petition for substantial rehabilitation with the D.C. government, seeking permission to renovate the building and raise the tenants’ rents to more than double their original amounts. D.C. law permits these rent increases if a landlord undertakes renovations so substantial that they will cost more than half of the value of the building, and if the renovations are “in the interest of the tenants.” But the tenants claimed that Loney’s plan did not come close to meeting this standard – and, after several years of agency litigation, the Court of Appeals agreed. The Court held that a landlord hoping to take advantage of the substantial rehabilitation law must show that each part of the proposal is in the tenants’ interest. This ruling is an important contribution to the law on rehabilitation and should give tenants an additional tool for fighting landlords’ petitions in the future.

The case also involved a claim for attorney’s fees, prosecuted on Legal Aid’s behalf by Jenner & Block. Because the tenants had prevailed before the agency, they were entitled to attorney’s fees. The Rental Housing Commission unilaterally reduced the fee award, on the ground that the hourly rate requested – the “Laffey Matrix” rate, which is routinely used for government and public interest attorneys – was too high. The Court ruled in our favor on this issue as well. Most importantly, it rejected the District’s claim that work before administrative agencies is automatically less “complex” than federal litigation and deserving of a lower fee rate.