Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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As low-income D.C. residents grapple with an affordable housing crisis, the District’s top lawyer is promising to aid them by boosting his staff with an “affirmative public interest” focus.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine today unrolled a new “Public Advocacy Division” within his office to lead cases related to affordable housing, labor issues like wage theft, and various forms of fraud. He has hired Robyn Bender, who previously served as a lawyer at the Kentucky Attorney General’s office, to head the division. She has experience in consumer-protection, civil, and financial litigation, according to Racine. This division will bring proactive suits against alleged violators of housing law.

In a statement, Racine says the change “will amplify our existing work on behalf of the public.” And a spokesman for the attorney general’s office says the new organizational structure follows a model other state-level jurisdictions have used: Centralizing all its lawyers working on cases where D.C. is the plaintiff (known as “affirmative litigation”) under one division. The spokesman adds that the new section will broaden the office’s focus beyond “neighborhood nuisances” to “housing-justice cases.”

While exact staffing for the division has yet to be determined, it will boast around 10 attorneys plus paralegals and others. It’s poised to continue the work Racine has pursued regarding housing-code enforcement and also preventing developers from illegally forcing residents out of their homes. Last year, Racine filed two lawsuits against Sanford Capital, a D.C. property-owner whose tenants live in slum conditions, over complexes it runs in Southeast. Both of those cases are still pending, but the D.C. Superior Court is monitoring “abatement plans” Sanford has agreed to with respect to upkeep.

In one of those cases, Racine’s office has sued Sanford under D.C.’s consumer-protection statutes, in a novel form of local landlord-tenant litigation. A judge is expected to rule on these claims shortly. If successful, D.C. could recoup tenants’ past rent and further deter landlords from violating the law.