Written by Lucy Newton

Oct 18


Advocating for the Restoration of Funding to Critical Safety Net Programs

Lucy Newton, Supervising Attorney

Last month, DC finance officials identified a $140 million budget surplus. Meanwhile, vital safety-net programs that provide critical assistance to the poorest of District residents lack sufficient funding, including:

  •  Homeless services;
  • Employment, supportive services and temporary cash assistance for families in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program; and
  • The Housing Production Trust Fund, which helps produce and preserve affordable housing.

The Mayor and the DC Council have already prioritized these programs as needing additional funding – funding which, if not restored, will have real and potentially life-threatening consequences for DC residents. For instance:

  • Half of all shelter beds in the District may close this spring, forcing nearly 1,200 homeless men and women to sleep on the street.
  • DC families struggling to get back to work will not receive employment assistance and other essential services and their already meager cash benefits will be further cut, making it nearly impossible for them to meet their families’ most basic daily needs.
  • The production of affordable housing – the only real solution to homelessness – will never keep up with the alarming number of affordable housing units DC continues to lose each year.

We join the Fair Budget Coalition in urging you to email the Mayor and DC Council now, or call the Mayor at 202-727-6263. Tell them to use some of this surplus to keep folks off the streets, get parents back to work, and build much-needed affordable housing.

Oct 17


Legal Aid Welcomes Equal Justice Works Fellow, Stephanie Akpa

Lucy Newton, Supervising Attorney

Stephanie Akpa

Stephanie Akpa, Equal Justice Works Fellow

Legal Aid is pleased to announce the recent arrival of our newest Equal Justice Works Fellow, Stephanie Akpa, who joined the Public Benefits Unit in September. Stephanie’s project, which is sponsored by The Norflet Progress Fund Advisory Committee, focuses on expanding access to quality health care for the African-American community in the District of Columbia.

Access to quality healthcare in DC is a vital issue for African Americans, a disproportionate number of whom live in poverty or on its brink. More than one in three residents East of the Anacostia River — a predominantly African-American community — live in poverty, and one in six live in deep poverty, meaning they survive on half of the federal poverty level. It is unsurprising that residents of low-income communities have worse health outcomes than those in higher income areas. They are, for instance, more likely to be uninsured and less likely to have a regular doctor. Persons living in poverty are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases and be hospitalized for conditions more properly treated in a primary care setting.

Although DC — having made an extraordinary commitment to expansions in public insurance programs — boasts one of the lowest rates of uninsured in the nation, stark racial disparities persist. This Project endeavors to address these vital concerns by working to ensure that individuals receive the health insurance benefits to which they are entitled and access quality healthcare services regardless of race or income level. Stephanie will provide education and conduct outreach with a focus on assisting the Black community in navigating the complex healthcare system and understanding their rights to public insurance benefits, including Medicaid, Medicare and the DC Health Care Alliance.  She will also represent individuals who have been denied public insurance coverage or access to quality care, and she will advocate at the local level to expand health care access to all African Americans, simplify the application and benefits-selection process, and ensure that access to quality health care is expanded as DC implements the Affordable Care Act.

Before coming to Legal Aid, Stephanie worked as a litigation attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in New York, New York. While at Debevoise, Stephanie worked on criminal defense and immigration pro bono cases and served as a director of the firm’s legal clinic with the Knowledge Is Power Program Academy middle school in Bronx, New York. During law school, Stephanie was a student intern in the Workers and Immigrants Rights Advocacy Clinic and the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic. Stephanie received her J.D. from Yale Law School and her B.A. from the University of California, San Diego.

Sep 13


Legal Aid Partners with Area Legal Non-profits To Sponsor FREE Public Benefits Training Series

Lucy Newton, Supervising Attorney

We are pleased to announce that Legal Aid will again be participating in a Public Benefits Training series this Fall.  This training series is a partnership between the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and Whitman-Walker Health Legal Services with support from Bread for the City and DC Hunger Solutions.  We greatly appreciate the DC Bar Pro Bono Program for partnering with us and hosting this training series.

The trainings are free and an opportunity to learn about eligibility, benefits, application procedures, and practical tips on how to help your clients navigate the system.  It is also an opportunity to hear about new developments or policy changes affecting that benefit program.  We encourage case managers, legal services lawyers, pro bono lawyers, or anyone who works with low-income clients to attend these sessions.  

Registration is required – please email Jeremy Strauss at with your name and organization name and the sessions that you want to attend.  We have some space limitations and need to provide counts for each training to ensure we have enough copies of materials so please RSVP.  

Quick List of Training Session Dates & Topics:

  • Tuesday, September 20, 2011 – SSI / SSDI
  • Tuesday, October 4, 2011 – Access to Healthcare: Medicaid/Medicare/DC Healthcare Alliance/QMB/Health Reform
  • Thursday, October 27, 2011 – Medicare Parts A, B, C, & D & QMB
  • Wednesday, November 9, 2011 – TANF: Cash assistance for poor families
  • Friday, December 2, 2011 – Food Assistance: SNAP/Food Stamps, WIC, and other food resources
  • Wednesday, December 14, 2011 – Immigrant Eligibility for Public Benefits

 *All sessions are from noon – 2 pm and will be held at the DC Bar, 1101 K Street NW, Washington, DC.

Additional information can be found on this Public Benefits Training Series Flyer – 2011.  Please feel free to share the news of these trainings widely.


Apr 19


D.C. Budget Would Suspend Interim Disability Assistance

Lucy Newton, Supervising Attorney

Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) offers $270 per month to individuals who are unable to work due to a disability and who have applied for and have a high probability of receiving federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI).  Once an application is granted, the recipient receives Social Security benefits back to the date of application, a portion of which the federal Social Security Administration (SSA) gives to the District as reimbursement for IDA.  As explained in this short video from So Others Might Eat and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, IDA is often the one resource keeping individuals with disabilities from sinking into utter destitution and homelessness.

Currently, the District is reimbursed about 40% of the money it spends on IDA – one of the highest reimbursement rates of any of the 38 states that have a similar program.  For FY 2011, the District expected to receive $2 million in reimbursement from the federal government for IDA; the District has already outperformed this estimation by receiving $2.5 million.

Despite the relative success of the program’s reimbursement process, Mayor Gray has pointed to the 40% reimbursement rate as a reason to dismantle the program.  The Mayor has proposed slashing up to 75% of the funding for IDA, which would cut the current caseload of 1,500 to about 600 by the end of FY 2012. (The program’s caseload has already been drastically reduced from its peak of 2,900 in 2008, and there is currently a lengthy waitlist for the program.)

At the April 6 budget briefing, the Mayor complained that when the program was conceived eight years ago, “there was supposed to be an effort made to ensure that there was compatibility at the front end, the front door of eligibility, so that people who were accepted were clearly going to be accepted by SSI.”  Because of the number of people in the program who are denied SSI, the Mayor maintained that IDA has meant “the recreation of a general public assistance program for a lot of these people in the city.” (Mayor Gray was likely referring to the District’s former General Public Assistance program, which served a similar purpose but was ended in 1997 in part because its recovery rates were around 20% — half the rate of the current IDA program.)

The Mayor’s thought process and approach to IDA are puzzling.  First, the denial of an individual’s SSI application does not necessarily mean that the application lacked merit and cannot be considered evidence of flaws in the IDA program.  Legal Aid and other service providers frequently represent – and win benefits for – clients with severe disabling conditions who were incorrectly denied benefits by SSA.

Second, leaving individuals with disabilities penniless while they wait several months to receive SSI is not a reasonable solution to concerns about eligibility screening.  Rather, the Mayor should work with the Department of Human Services and advocates to think more creatively about ways to improve the program and, if necessary, the screening process.  Legal Aid stands ready to participate in such discussions.

We encourage you to reach out to Councilmember Jim Graham, Chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services, in support of IDA.  You can reach Councilmember Graham at (202) 724-8181 or

Previous Making Justice Real posts on IDA:

Mayor Gray’s Proposed Budget Cuts Would Hit Legal Aid Clients Hard (Apr. 15, 2011)

New Video on the Importance of the District’s Interim Disability Assistance Program(Mar. 22, 2011)

Individuals with Disabilities Assistance Program on the Chopping Block (Mar. 17, 2010)


Jun 28


Action Needed To Preserve Safe, Affordable Housing In DC

Lucy Newton croppedOn May 28, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (“DCRA”) closed a rooming house at 14th Street and Park Road, NW because a malfunctioning electrical meter caused the electricity to go out.  The fifteen tenants, who report that they are current with their rent payments, were given only a few hours to gather their belongings and leave their homes.  They were told that the District would pay for a short-term stay at a nearby motel.  (Read about it in the Washington Post.) 

The tenants have requested that the District use its Nuisance Abatement Fund to make the necessary repair, which is estimated to cost only a few thousand dollars and would allow the tenants to move back in.  (The D.C. government is authorized by statute to make repairs paid out of its own funds and put a lien on the property in the amount of the costs of the repairs.)  So far DCRA has refused to do so, saying that the rooming house is operating without a license or a certificate of occupancy.  According to D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, the building has operated as a rooming house for more than fifty years.

DCRA’s failure to make repairs has resulted in the displacement of fifteen low- to moderate-income tenants and the additional loss of affordable housing in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.

Sadly, this situation is all too familiar in D.C.  Property owners who want to sell their rental properties or convert them to high-end rentals or condominiums gain an economic benefit by removing existing tenants, and unscrupulous owners often deliberately neglect their buildings until tenants have no choice but to “voluntarily” leave.  The Washington Post reported last year that, despite tenant protections written into D.C. law, DCRA had repeatedly failed to prevent landlords from emptying rental buildings and converting them to condominiums worth hundreds of millions of dollars. (Story here.)   

DCRA is the first place many tenants turn for help when their landlords fail to make repairs.  Unfortunately, DCRA often does not respond to inspection requests in a timely manner or fails to respond at all.  DCRA’s failure to effectively enforce the housing code means that landlords who are determined not to make repairs are allowed to neglect their buildings to the point that they become uninhabitable or nearly so, leaving tenants with no meaningful option other than to move out.  

In some cases, like the rooming house at 14th and Park, a building may deteriorate to the point that an inspector determines that the building is unsafe and orders it closed. These building evacuations often are chaotic, with tenants receiving little or no advance notice that they need to collect their personal property and leave. Tenants may be locked out of their homes for an indefinite period of time, and some are unaware that they have the right to return to their homes once repairs are made.  

Most troubling are the situations where landlords willfully neglect needed repairs in order to force the tenants to move out.  In those cases, DCRA’s requiring that tenants vacate without also ensuring that repairs are made and that tenants can return to their homes has the unfortunate effect of assisting the landlord in his or her attempt to empty the building.   

So what can be done to protect tenants and prevent this kind of displacement?  Two bills currently pending before the D.C. Council would, if enacted, be a good start.  The Tenant Protection Act of 2009 would prevent the closing of an occupied residential building unless DCRA has made an affirmative finding (either beforehand or, in the case of true emergencies, within 5 days after the closing) that it is impossible or impracticable to use the Nuisance Abatement Fund to make the necessary repairs.  If it’s not impossible or impracticable, then the District must use the Fund to make the repairs and charge the costs to the landlord as a lien against the property.  The Omnibus Rental Housing Amendment Act of 2009 includes, among other things, a measure that would strengthen code enforcement so that repairs are addressed before a building gets into such bad shape that it needs to be closed.  Legal Aid strongly supports both bills as important steps toward preserving safe, affordable housing in the District of Columbia.