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Barbara Rice has a lot of tics. She has an earthquake of a laugh that can rupture sentences in half and send the fragments—sharp pronouncements, nervous clauses—flying. She wears oversized red-rimmed glasses that dwarf her face. They slip a lot; she pushes them back up.
Standing, Rice pats the print patterns of her ankle-length skirt into rigid formation. She walks fast, staring straight ahead. Her greetings are minor fender benders: bone-crusher handshakes, jarringly loud hullos.
It is hard to like Barbara Rice. That’s mainly because Rice is a lawyer who represents landlords. A lot of them. Her job is to get tenants to pay their back rent or get out—to, as she says, “wake up and smell the coffee.” That’s not going to make her the most popular woman in the D.C. courthouse complex.
On this Tuesday morning in Landlord and Tenant Court, Rice stares into the middle distance, knees together, hands wrapped around a clipboard in her lap. The assembled tenants, here to stave off eviction and defend themselves against their landlords’ lawyers, watch her anyway. She is a white woman, in front of a mostly black court, who can’t even fake politeness. It’s hard not to notice.
At roll call—when the clerk reads out the day’s roster of plaintiffs and defendants—about 50 of the calls are answered by Rice. There’s a droning repetitiveness to it all: Barbara Rice, for the plaintiff. Again and again and again. Rice will soon hear that the tenants are here because their roofs leak or because their landlord is scum or because they’ve been sick.
Hearing her cases read in rapid succession, Rice can’t contain herself. It’s pure, giddy joy. The scene becomes her moment. After a few no-show defendants—on whose cases instant judgments are rendered on behalf of the landlords—Rice actually starts to smile. Her face fills with big, big teeth.
The tenants grumble audibly. Some even let out their own nervous laughs.
Rice appears not to notice. Although she says roll call is a routine chore, her smile gives her feelings away. She can’t help it; she likes her job. She looks like a woman who loves to win even these easy victories. As an associate attorney at Loewinger & Brand—one of a handful of firms that work Landlord and Tenant Court—Rice manages one of the biggest caseloads of any attorney on the property beat. She says she handles up to 300 cases a week. It’s made her a minor courtroom celebrity—the one they love to hate.
“I’m sure I’ve pissed people off,” Rice admits. “If I’m smiling during my judgments, well, gee, I didn’t intend to. That’s funny. Oh boy. That’s funny.”
After roll call, Rice meets just outside the courtroom with tenants scheduled on the day’s docket who are now looking to make a deal. She sits in the middle of a long, beat-up wooden table. For Rice, the victory here comes when a tenant signs a consent agreement, a form letter in which the renter admits guilt and agrees to a payment plan. It’s a lot easier than taking it to the judge.
The majority of tenants do not have lawyers. They can only tell their stories to Rice and hope for the best. Their hopes, by and large, don’t work out.
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Lorraine Helms takes a seat across from Rice. She has taken off work at the Securities and Exchange Commission to be here; she owes $1,833 in back rent. “What do I do?” she asks Rice. This is her first time in Landlord and Tenant. Helms says she was sick—kidney failure in December, and lots of missed work. At first, Rice doesn’t look up from her paperwork. When she finally does, she cuts the story real short. “You can be called, and we can go before the judge,” she says. No deal.
In the next breath, Rice tells her not to bother. She’ll lose anyway. Hardship—whether it’s illness or loss of a job—is not a defense in this courtroom. Helms just leaves. There are no agreements to sign, just a few thousand dollars she has to pay within the month or be evicted. I can’t help but think she should have chanced it with the judge. “I hope I can cover the rent,” Helms says, dashing off to work.
The next tenant, who refuses to give her name, has a sad, believable story. Clutching her cane and pointing to the huge scar on her forehead, she says she had a series of aneurysms that led to a full-blown stroke. Half her body was paralyzed for months. She left payments on her Minnesota Avenue SE apartment—$375 a month—to her sister-in-law, but the sister-in-law never paid.
Rice acts as if she sees nothing but a deadbeat. She pushes an agreement form toward the woman. The tenant leans hard into her cane even when she’s sitting down. “Can you make the first payment?” Rice asks. The woman still wants to explain her situation. Rice nudges the form forward.
The tenant owes more than $2,000. She receives $700 in disability payments per month, has to pay $575 within a few days. Deal? In July, the payment increases to $740. The tenant says her disability is supposed to go up to $800. She signs the form. Another victory for Rice.
When another tenant makes an approach, Rice leans over and whispers: “I think she’s good friends with the bottle.” Later, when I ask about this description, she will deny the comment. Rice says the tenant owes back rent; the tenant says the landlord’s building has $1,100 in housing-code violations.By afternoon, the tenant and Rice are headed for a trial. Later, the tenant will dial up the law firm and call Rice a bitch. She won’t be the first one to use that word.
Rice’s fellow lawyers are also willing to throw rocks at her—off the record, of course. One lawyer, who insists on remaining anonymous, quips, “She’d never wear Lycra.”
“She’s not going to win any beauty contests,” the attorney adds. This from a guy with a conspicuous gut who must thank God every morning he still has enough hair to mousse up. So much for justice being blind.
Something about Rice seems to make otherwise sensitive people laugh with all the tact of the popular girls at a junior high school. But then again, housing lawyers aren’t exactly arguing before the Supreme Court; they’re working for money in the hundreds. Petty cases beget petty relationships. Ultimately, I wonder if there’s an ulterior motive at work beyond this plain old nastiness. When I approach Rice’s colleagues for this story, they wonder aloud why I don’t profile them. Why does the dork get to be the star?
She gets to be the star because she gets noticed—no easy feat for Landlord and Tenant Court attorneys. Their job is grunt work, or, as Rice describes it, “grunge law.” There are no flashy defendants, no surprise witnesses—just mounds of paperwork, small money, and maybe some pictures of decrepit housing.
When I meet Rice after hours, she’s still the same Rice as inside the courtroom. Only now she’s eating an apple and smiling big time before an audience of one.
Rice’s anecdotes about landlords getting screwed by vindictive tenants or going bankrupt lead to various tributaries of tangents, but about her own life, she sticks tersely to the basics: Grew up in Bethesda and Bowie, graduated from Walter Johnson High School, then George Washington University, where her father was a professor. There are no real comments on adolescence.
“Ask the Trenchcoat Mafia,” she jokes. “I just wasn’t terribly popular. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t have any friends to get drugs from or do drugs with.”
Rice swan-dived into the local hardcore scene in its early-’80s heyday. She loved Minor Threat, Joy Division, and the rest of the teen-angst diaspora. She wrote a ‘zine called Truly Needy from 1983 to 1986 (first cover: Ronald Reagan in a lace top with the headline: “New Romantic Reagan”). She was enough of a scene regular to be pictured in Banned in D.C., a retrospective of early D.C. punk rock. She was photographed sitting in her apartment, Wire’s Pink Flag album at her side.
Rice eventually graduated from American University’s law school in 1991. She did a few stints with the federal government before joining her firm. Rice has $500 per month in student loans and bills her clients $90 per hour. The great evictor’s own landlords these days, by the way, are her parents.
Her punk days of screaming at the Man behind her, Rice now screams on the Man’s behalf. But she still carries herself like the alienated outsider, a lawyer in the trenches. She is abrupt and sometimes outright mean. But what makes her so hard to take is also the reason for her success: She fights for clients and no one else. When I tell her that another lawyer has called her a jerk, she has a short answer: “Oh. Cool.”
Even attorneys who say she is “lacking the personality gene” admit that she gets the job done—and that the rough veneer might even be an act. She receives high marks not only from her boss at the firm, but also from some lawyers who work for the tenants. “She’s been good,” says Michele Singer, a staff attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services, who currently has a case with Rice. “She’s unusual, but great in my case.”
Stephen Hessler, an attorney who works on Rice’s side of the fence, agrees on her ability. “She has good instincts,” he explains. But he has to slip a little jab in with his praise: “Close your eyes and listen, she ain’t bad.”
To Rice, victimhood is all relative. She complains that her annual income (roughly $30,000, she says) isn’t so hot. She notes that she doesn’t have cable television—unlike many of the tenants she evicts. She says that she has no car, must make daunting student loan payments, and shares her Cabin John house with another tenant and his young son.
The endless procession of cases makes her know the typical defendant pretty well. But it also means that she has a hard time remembering the individual one. This week, for instance, she has been involved in so many motions of discovery, hearings, and phone calls to landlords that she can barely remember Helms or anyone else.
“I can’t get emotionally involved in the cases,” she says. She doesn’t hang around to write up eviction papers or even watch. When I remind her on Thursday about Helms’ illness, Rice retreats into the law books: “Hardship is not a legal defense,” she says flatly.
But since Tuesday—while Rice has been busy with other cases and other motions—Helms has been trying to figure out the implications of her five minutes with Rice. That very afternoon, Helms called her landlord to complain. Then she called her brother in New York—maybe he could lobby her landlord.
Wednesday morning, her brother left an answering machine message: Would she settle on paying $1,500 by the first week in July? That’s the only offer. She still doesn’t have the money. What with the surgery, the dialysis, and a plethora of pills, she’s operating in the red. This past winter, Helms says, she decided not to go on disability, simply to get well and go back to work. But her determination hasn’t been enough.
Soon after her hospital stays, her wages were garnished for credit-card debt and growing health-care costs. Instead of taking home $800 on a good two-week pay period, when she’s not going to dialysis, she’s clearing $200. Helms says she had to make a choice: to get healthy or pay the rent. She chose the former. Now, Helms says she barely has money to pay for the bus ride to work.
Helms says that Rice didn’t really play fair with her. “Somebody was being funny,” she says. “She really didn’t have any idea what was going on with me.” But she also doesn’t completely fault the lawyer. Rice was being Rice. “She was just representing the landlord. That’s her job. I have a job to do, too.” CP