Navigating Landlord Tenant Court and Housing Law in D.C.

It’s hard to believe that my summer internship is almost over. It’s been a jam packed summer full of learning moments. I’ve become familiar with not only my host organization but also the city of DC, as well. From navigating the metro to exploring the museums there is always something to do.  Washington DC is a great place to be as an intern. There are many events geared towards interns. My cohort of interns have been to multiple events hosted by the Washington Lawyers Committee that explores law and politics. Recently we went to a panel featuring D.C. judges entitled “Poverty From the Bench”. We heard judges discuss poverty and how it affects our judicial system. They also shared how they try to make rulings that are not biased. It was inspiring to hear these judges speak.

As an undergraduate intern, in the housing unit at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, I have  interacted with members of the client community in person and over the phone. As part of my internship, I spend two days of the week working at our courthouse project. The courthouse project provides clients with same day representation on their first court appearances in their housing cases. These cases tend to be eviction cases. In D.C. if a landlord wants to evict a tenant, they have to go through the courts in order to do so. I believe that this is a good process due to the fact that tenants have the right to fight against the eviction. However, I have learned that in practice there are many problems with the landlord tenant court proceedings.

A very important statistic that I learned early on in my internship is that 90% of landlords have lawyers in these proceedings, while only 10% of tenants are represented. This creates a power differential between landlords and tenants. Often times, tenants that are unrepresented get intimated by their landlords’ lawyers and consent to a move-out agreement even though they  frequently do not have anywhere else to live. There is a book by Matthew Desmond that goes into detail about eviction statistics entitled “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”.

Photo From the Evicted Exhibit

There is currently an exhibit dedicated to this book and eviction work at the National Building Museum. Ironically, the museum is directly across the street from the landlord Tenant Courthouse in D.C.. As part of our internship program, I went to this exhibit with my fellow interns. It was truly an eye opening experience for me. I don’t think I ever knew just how bad evictions were not only in D.C. but across the country as a whole. The exhibition contained a section that talked about the Right To Counsel. Right To Counsel (RTC) is a movement that supports individuals having guaranteed representation in civil matters. While the sixth amendment of the constitution grants us a right to an attorney in criminal matters, it does not apply to civil matters such as housing cases.

Photo From the Evicted Exhibit

The Legal Aid Society of D.C’s Courthouse project is  a part of this movement. Housing lawyers are down at the courthouse five days a week to serve as “AOD” (Attorney of the Day) to help represent as many clients as possible. Unfortunately, there are to many cases on the docket and not enough attorneys. The average number of eviction cases on any given day is roughly 160. Of those cases, approximately half are deemed defaults which means that the tenant did not show up for court. This is very disheartening and something that the attorneys I work with are hoping will change. Being able to work down at the courthouse has been inspiring and motivating. It has led me to believe that my desire to go to law school is very much what I want to do in the future. I want to be able to help provide legal services to those that are underrepresented. I believe that everyone should have a right to counsel in cases that can have an affect on their well being such as eviction cases.

 

Author: La'Dericka Hall

I'm a rising Senior majoring in Politics and minoring in Business, Economics, and Legal Studies. I intend on going to law school after my time at Brandeis. I'm interested in public interest law, in particular housing discrimination.

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