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Every day across D.C., more than a dozen evictions occur—a number slightly higher than the national average—in proceedings that involve a crew of armed U.S. marshals. Compared to eviction practices in other metropolitan areas, D.C.’s are particularly traumatizing.
Because landlords have to secure 20 movers for the eviction of a three-bedroom apartment, or 25 for a single-family home, tenants must watch as hordes of movers and armed marshals donning SWAT vests flood into their home and drag its contents outside. The evictions become crowded, frenetic, and often humiliating spectacles.
The District, it seems, is finally coming around to changing that.
Last fall, the U.S. Marshals Service “underwent an extensive review of evictions practices” in D.C. and other jurisdictions, Robert Brandt, a spokesman for USMS, tells City Paper.
It came just weeks after the USMS got flak for its October eviction of a tax service company, which forced the U.S. Treasury Department to collect thousands of pages of documents containing consumer tax and social security data that were tossed onto 8th Street NE. (In other cities, sheriff’s deputies are typically responsible for evicting tenants, but in D.C., the USMS is responsible for serving and carrying out orders issued by D.C. Superior Court, including eviction judgments.)
The review found that many of the marshals’ longtime practices “have been done through force of tradition for decades” but aren’t required by law, according to a D.C. official familiar with the marshals’ review, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. That includes the frequently criticized tradition of directing landlords to toss tenants’ belongings on the sidewalk or street once they’ve been evicted. City Paper reported in 1999 and 2017 that property owners often employ homeless D.C. residents to do this and frequently pay them below minimum wage.
In mid-March, USMS notified a small handful of groups, including the Legal Aid Society, the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, and the Office of Ward 6 Councilmember and judiciary committee chair Charles Allen, about its proposed changes. After subsequent weeks of quiet but continuous consultation, USMS plans to implement two “significant” policy directives at the beginning of the summer, Brandt says.
First, USMS will overhaul its eviction scheduling and notification system, Brandt says. The service will start scheduling evictions at least two weeks after D.C. Superior Court issues an eviction judgment, and mail tenants a notice of that date “at the time of scheduling,” giving tenants days or weeks of advance notice before they’re evicted. The service will also post that date online. Currently, tenants receive a “writ of restitution,” or eviction judgment, that’s valid for 75 days, and in many cases don’t receive a firm date until the afternoon before they’re evicted, when an evictions schedule for the following day goes up in the Landlord & Tenant Branch of D.C. courts.
Brandt also confirmed that USMS will stop explicitly directing landlords to remove tenants’ property and place it on the street, since there is no legal requirement for them to do so. “It’s the idea of changing locks rather than having everyone’s possessions thrown out,” Allen says.
In January, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of D.C. resident Donya Williams, who says two armed marshals effectively marched her, naked, out of her home during a 2015 eviction, while a crew of 20 movers stood outside her home laughing. She also alleges that thousands of dollars worth of property was stolen, and that someone dumped bleach into bags of her clothing. “Things can get broken, damaged by water, stolen. It’s not a humane way to handle someone’s property or possessions,” Allen says.
While officials agree that current practices often degrade (if not terrify) tenants, the marshals’ changes come with a big question mark: Will tenants remain in legal possession of their own property after an eviction?
“If you’re my landlord and the lease is expired, now the locks have been changed and I can’t access my own property, who owns [that property]?” Allen asks. “So there’s some legal ambiguity we’re still trying to work out to make sure people still have access to their own possessions.”
Other major metropolitan jurisdictions instruct landlords to move tenants’ possessions into short-term storage offsite. In Massachusetts, for example, storage laws require the officers leading evictions to move a tenant’s belongings into a public warehouse within 20 miles of the place the tenant rented, for up to six months after the eviction.
Allen says a legislative fix, introduced to the Council before it breaks for the summer, isn’t off the table. But he doesn’t think stakeholders have come to a true consensus on the associated details of that plan—chiefly, who would be responsible for footing the storage bill and transferring tenants’ belongings, and how long tenants would have access to the unit before someone tosses its contents. (Allen indicated that he supports moving evicted tenants’ belongings into short-term storage for a number of months.)
Untangling those questions is the primary reason USMS hasn’t yet enacted its two proposed changes, Allen says. After the marshals reached out to his office in March, he asked them to hold off on introducing the directives, which USMS planned to implement this month, until groups had a chance to work through their legal implications.
They still haven’t. Brandt notes that USMS doesn’t have the authority on its own to direct landlords to move tenants’ property to a storage facility, but will move forward with its proposed changes, regardless of whether the Council passes an accompanying bill that legislates around those legal issues.
“I think that the Marshals Service has been surprised that there are concerns about their plan,” Beth Harrison, director of Legal Aid’s Court-Based Legal Services Project, says. “They genuinely felt like they came up with a proposal that balances landlord and tenant interests.”
Looming over that conversation is the specter of the Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed Department of Human Services fiscal year 2019 budget. The Council is currently deciding whether to approve Bowser’s plan, which would cut funding for the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program by $1.78 million. The council approved part of Bowser’s proposed cut to the fund in her fiscal year 2018 budget and is poised to do so again this year. ERAP funds back-rent payments for tenants who are at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line, and is one of D.C.’s most effective eviction prevention mechanisms.
And though tenant advocates say the direction of USMS’ proposed changes is heartening, many are frustrated by proposed cuts to the programs that help prevent evictions to begin with.
“The Mayor’s proposed budget will take an effective program that is already facing a serious budgetary shortfall and make things worse,” Legal Aid’s Amanda Korber wrote on the group’s website last week. “Further cuts to ERAP [would] leave the most vulnerable families with no way of saving their homes.”