Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill during Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting to reform how D.C. Superior Court handles and maintains records of eviction proceedings, an effort to ameliorate the sometimes “lasting, dramatic impact” an eviction can have on a tenant’s life, Cheh said. The bill will also require landlords to notify tenants of their intent to file an eviction lawsuit 30 days before they do so.

“District law does not currently provide for eviction records to be sealed or expunged. As such, they follow a tenant indefinitely, impeding a tenant’s ability to find housing,” Cheh said during the Council’s hearing on Tuesday. “The harm caused by these sometimes permanent records can be particularly acute for low income residents and those who have experienced homelessness.”

The bill, co-introduced by At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, will require D.C. Superior Court to seal the eviction records of tenants after four years, as well as in a number of other cases, including if the housing provider receives a judgment of $500 or less, if the tenant was evicted from a locally or federally subsidized housing program, if the housing provider violated D.C.’s housing code, or if the housing provider sued a tenant for eviction after an act of domestic violence or stalking. The bill includes a clause that would give the court discretion to determine whether it should seal those records under other circumstances as well.

Cheh’s bill also implements a number of measures that aim to protect the privacy of the evicted tenant, banning “a person or business entity” from publishing the contents of a sealed eviction record if that person “knows or should know that an order to seal a record has been issued under this section.” That person would be liable for actual and compensatory damages, as well as attorney’s fees, if they publish the contents of those records anyway.

“We’re in a period of time, at least at the local level, where especially post-Ferguson, I think there’s a far greater sensitivity to things like criminalizing petty behaviors, evictions … how can you recover from some of these things? This is a piece of a greater sensitivity to how poor people, people without means, struggle in ways that maybe we haven’t been sensitive to in the past,” Cheh says. “We have expungement for criminal records, and bankruptcy we have fresh start. Why don’t we have something here?” (She cites reading Matthew Desmond‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted as an impetus for thinking about the “disturbing social harm” evictions can cause.)

The issue of how to make eviction proceedings more humane occupied much of the Council’s time during its last legislative session. In April, City Paper reported that the U.S. Marshals Service—the federal law enforcement body responsible for carrying out evictions in D.C.—planned to change its eviction proceedings, and would no longer direct landlords to toss tenants’ belongings onto the sidewalk after an eviction.

And in May, the Council began to weigh how it should legislate around the Marshals’ new policy, considering a series of both emergency and longer-term measures to establish guidelines for the removal and storage of evicted tenants’ belongings. A September hearing of the Council’s housing committee provided little indication of whether a consensus approach between lawmakers and advocates exists.

For now, Cheh also says she’d like to tweak the bill, making clear that housing providers cannot discriminate against prospective tenants based on their eviction history. “Should they suffer an eviction, there should be an end at some point” to the consequences, Cheh says. “But we’re starting a conversation.” The bill was jointly referred to the Council’s housing and judiciary committees.