The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have disproportionately destabilized the lives of low-income DC residents. In particular, housing security, which was already a top concern for this vulnerable population pre-pandemic, has been exacerbated. Two recent studies estimate that more than 50,000 families in DC currently are at risk of eviction and up to 30,000 families are likely to face an eviction lawsuit in the coming months, dramatically increasing the need for our services.
In mid-March 2020, the DC Superior Court system shut down and all pending eviction cases were put on hold. At the same time, emergency legislation passed by the DC Council stopped all actual evictions. Within days, Legal Aid established a tenant hotline and transitioned to telephone and online intake to ensure that our services remained accessible.
In May, Legal Aid and others successfully advocated with the Council to expand and extend protections from the initial emergency legislation, which included prohibiting landlords from filing any new eviction cases during the public health emergency and for 60 days after. As of now, no new eviction cases may be filed in DC until March 2, 2021. DC landlords continue to contest the legislation, and Legal Aid and other legal services providers are leading the fight in Court.
As the filing moratorium comes to an end next year, we anticipate that tens of thousands of new cases will be filed. The need for legal representation will be high and extremely vital.
Data from our Housing Right to Counsel Project has shown that, compared to unrepresented tenants, represented tenants are sixteen times more likely to raise a meritorious defense, eight times less likely to have a judgment entered, and four times less likely to have an eviction order issued. In short, having an attorney can make a world of difference, as it did for our clients Alysia Webber and Denise Humphries.
Ms. Webber was living at Belmont Crossing, a former Sanford Capital property that had come under new management. Sanford Capital, a notorious DC landlord with whom Legal Aid has dealt on many occasions, is known for mismanaging its properties to the point of effectively forcing tenants to leave or live in squalor. The new property manager inherited a property in disrepair but failed to communicate with the tenants about making rent payments and failed to perform badly-needed repairs and routine maintenance.
Legal Aid Housing Attorney Eleni Christidis represented Ms. Webber in her nonpayment of rent case. At trial, the testimony of a government housing inspector, Legal Assistant Karla Talley, and Ms. Webber herself made it clear that Ms. Webber and her child had endured unhealthy conditions for more than a year which the landlord had done virtually nothing to improve. After weighing all the evidence, the judge awarded Ms. Webber a 50% overall reduction of her rent. Ms. Webber was able to pay the remaining amount of rent and avoid eviction.
Ms. Humphries, a single mother of three children Antoinya, 13, Mykiesha, 12, and Zachary, 8, withheld her rent because of poor housing conditions. When her landlord sued her for nonpayment of rent, she sought help. Ms. Humphries connected with Legal Aid in June 2018 as part of Legal Aid’s Right to Housing Counsel Project. Ms. Humphries was represented by Housing attorney Faiza Majeed.
Faiza worked with Ms. Humphries over the next year and helped her obtain a highly favorable settlement, which included much-needed repairs and a waiver of rent that she should not have had to pay given the conditions of her home. Faiza also helped Ms. Humphries negotiate a lower monthly rent because her landlord, who is a site-based section 8 provider, was not deducting child care expenses, as required by law.
“I appreciate Legal Aid’s help very much. Communication is always there and y’all listen.“DENISE HUMPHRIES
Recognizing a Career of Service
Beth Mellen, a Supervising Attorney in the Housing Law Unit and the Director of Legal Aid’s Eviction Defense Project, was honored in November by the DC Bar Foundation with the Jerrold Scoutt Prize for her skills as “a fierce courtroom advocate, a compassionate client advisor, a dedicated mentor to younger lawyers, a skilled manager, and an accomplished leader of housing policy reform.” During Beth’s fifteen years as a Legal Aid attorney, she has been a dedicated advocate for housing rights across the District. Her knowledge of local and federal housing law, combined with her advocacy skills, has preserved safe, affordable housing for hundreds of residents in DC.
In her acceptance speech, Beth paid tribute to her family, and especially her late mother, who had schizophrenia and whose descent into poverty – losing her marriage, custody of her children, jobs, and housing – inspired Beth to become a public interest attorney. Beth also talked about how her mother was able to regain her stability and independence by the last ten years of her life, in large part as a result of being able to connect with community-based organizations, social workers, case managers, and legal services lawyers,.
“I saw, in real life, what an incredible impact a housing voucher can have. Stable housing made a world of difference.“BETH MELLEN
In her speech, Beth also acknowledged and thanked her clients “for everything they’ve taught me these last 15 years.”
“My favorite moments are always those I spend with my clients and members of my client community.”BETH MELLEN