Legal scholars and tenant advocates pushed Wednesday for the D.C. Council to approve a bill that would provide low-income residents with free legal representation in housing court.
“Currently, the District’s most vulnerable residents navigate the civil legal system alone,” Nancy Lopez, executive director of the Washington Council of Lawyers, said Wednesday at a Judiciary Committee hearing. “And they have a lot to lose. These are life-changing outcomes.”
D.C. housing laws are complicated, Ms. Lopez told the committee, and tenants representing themselves because they can’t afford attorneys are at a disadvantage against landlords, who almost always employ counsel.
Council member Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, introduced the bill, which has received near-universal support from other lawmakers. It would provide free legal services for tenants with income less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. That means a family of four with a combined household income of less than $48,600 would qualify.
The legal counsel would help in housing cases such as code violations, evictions and rental subsidy disputes. The D.C. Bar Foundation would administer grants for lawyers to represent the tenants. There is no cost estimate for implementing and maintaining the program.
The New York City Council is considering similar legislation. The council last month held a hearing on a bill that garnered broad support from legislators and legal and housing professionals.
A March report from Stout Risius Ross for the New York Bar Association showed that representation for all low-income tenants would cost New York about $200 million but also save the city about $300 million each year by keeping families out of homeless shelters.
Former D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan said access to affordable housing is the biggest need for low-income residents and that the McDuffie bill could help ensure those residents don’t end up homeless.
“If it isn’t passed, many will continue to be disadvantaged in managing housing disputes,” said Mr. Nathan, board president of the Council for Court Excellence.
Beth Harrison, director of the housing law unit of the D.C. Legal Aid Society, said tenants with attorneys “face a much lower chance of eviction. Represented tenants are five times more likely to contest the case against them. They don’t fold on the first day and accept a one-sided agreement.”
Legal Aid Society statistics show that about 30,000 cases pass through the Landlord Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court each year. In about 95 percent of those cases, landlords retain counsel, while only 5 percent of tenants bring attorneys. Nearly 75 percent of tenants each year enter into judgments on the first day of court, waiving the right to trial.
“Tenants could get taken advantage of, especially in rent control cases and housing code violations,” said Stephen Glaude, president of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development. “There’s a greater need for tenant protection, especially in this housing market.”
Nicola Whiteman, senior vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, told The Washington Times that the organization supports equal-access legal representation. But she added that tenants already have access to legal services from the D.C. Office of the Chief Tenant Advocate and the D.C. Bar Association.
Ms. Whiteman said most D.C. housing providers are small businesses or individuals, not huge management companies — and those landlords need legal help as well.
Landlords have one representative — the housing provider ombudsman in the Department of Housing and Community Development — and that is not enough, according to the Apartment and Office Building Association.
“DHCD has a single housing provider ombudsman who, while doing excellent work, cannot on her own meet the needs, especially the legal needs, of the District’s large small-housing-provider community,” Ms. Whiteman said.
Housing advocates said the legislation would have effects well beyond the individuals receiving free legal counsel.
Mr. Glaude said legal representation to low-income tenants will contribute to family and neighborhood stability and noted that “eviction leads to homelessness.”
When an attorney gets involved, landlords tend to drop cases or agree to fairer settlements, said Lori Leibowitz, a staff attorney with the housing branch of Neighborhood Legal Services Program. An effect like that can lead to cost savings for the city and more stable communities, she said.
The bill also could help bolster the nongovernmental legal services available to low-income tenants, Ms. Leibowitz said. Her organization takes walk-in clients three days a week and can employ only three staff lawyers dedicated to housing.
“We simply can’t take on the number of new housing cases that come in every week,” she said.
• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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