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Thank you for the unflattering article about me (“Queen of Mean,” 6/18). I am sure that some of my clients, who have complained to me that I am a marshmallow when it comes to the tenants, are laughing very loudly. Now let’s get down to some misconceptions that writer Jason Cherkis may have created.
First, with regard to judgments obtained during roll call: If someone does not appear at roll call in Landlord and Tenant Court, the landlord receives a default judgment. Default judgments can be easily vacated in the District of Columbia Court at the defendant’s insistence. This is because this jurisdiction favors adjudication on the merits. But, please, if you are a tenant and you are summoned to court, please show up on time. As for my smile during roll call, people have accused me of smiling when I am completely depressed. Perhaps I should dust off those old Joy Division albums to become more depressed so I will have a suitably glum appearance when the clerk reads the roll call.
The clerk reads a general statement during roll call that spells out the process and the rights of the tenant. This statement includes a caveat that the landlord’s attorney does not work for the court and that the tenant can obtain free legal advice. Court personnel are extremely helpful in guiding tenants to attorneys for organizations such as D.C. Law Students in Court, Zacchaeus Legal Clinic, D.C. School of Law Housing Clinic, and Neighborhood Legal Clinic.
Legal ethics dictate that I have to follow the directions of my client. I cannot make an agreement with a tenant when a client directs me otherwise. I cannot deviate from a client’s instructions without his or her permission.
Hardship is no defense for nonpayment of rent. Housing-code violations are a defense for nonpayment of rent. That, too, is spelled out during the announcement at roll call, for which, too often, tenants show up late. I am sorry about Ms. Helms’ predicament. I would be wasting my time and hers listening to her tragic story. There is simply nothing I can do for a tenant in a situation like that. Better to keep the discussion short, so that a tenant such as Helms can have more time to go to people who have the capacity to help her. A landlord is probably the last person equipped to help people such as Helms. A tenant also has the right to go before the judge once he or she meets with the landlord’s attorney and state his or her case.
Some of the judges who are more sympathetic to tenants will grant a judgment but stay the judgment for up to several weeks in order to afford the tenant an opportunity to become current with his or her rent.
Perhaps Helms’ situation is an argument for more universal health coverage. That notwithstanding, there are terrific organizations that help tenants that I mentioned to Cherkis, which he curiously neglected to list in the article. Among those are Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, and many smaller faith-based organizations about town. Landlords will often accept, in lieu of rent, a commitment letter, which states that the charity will pay a certain amount directly to the tenant.
If tenants sign a consent judgment praecipe (that is, a settlement in which the tenant agrees to judgment stayed upon the payment of back rent on certain due dates), the tenant must go to the interviewing judgment clerk, who reviews it. This clerk informs the tenant of his or her rights and makes sure that he or she comprehends the agreement. The clerk also informs the tenant that if there are any suspected outstanding housing-code violations, it is a defense for nonpayment and that he or she does not have to enter into this agreement.
It is extremely difficult to evict a tenant in the District of Columbia. The District of Columbia has the most pro-tenant laws of any jurisdiction in the United States, except perhaps Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis. Therefore, I have had client landlords file for bankruptcy while I have represented them in Landlord and Tenant Court matters. All of them were African-American, all of them were small-business people, and all of them depended upon rent to pay their mortgages.
Since Cherkis chose to make ad hominem comments about me, I shall do the same. It is a fact that Cherkis asked me some bizarrely inappropriate questions. When I mentioned that my boyfriend and I had attended the Waco Brothers show at the Black Cat, which he had previewed, he asked me if my boyfriend and I had had sexual relations following the concert. He also asked me copious questions about the facts surrounding my imminent divorce. If I appeared brusque at the time, it was because I wanted to protect my privacy and that of my husband. I feel that I was within my right to do so, because the divorce is not yet finalized. I think that, on the basis of this behavior, Cherkis should no longer have a job with the Washington City Paper. His behavior was rude, insulting, and sexist, and the questions were irrelevant.
Finally, a parting shot. I met a few old friends at the Art-O-Matic closing party last Saturday night. I mentioned the article in jest and the name of the author. Someone overheard me and commented, “Jason Cherkis, he’s a terrible writer. I almost wrote a nasty letter about the terribly written preview he did of the Waco Brothers.”
Peace, love, unity, and respect.
via the Internet