A couple of months ago, tenant advocates celebrated the inauguration of the Housing Conditions Calendar, which allows tenants to sue their landlords for housing code violations on an expedited schedule. They celebrated it again at Saturday’s tenant town hall, counting the new court as the year’s greatest victory, over some pretty formidable odds. Judge Melvin Wright, who presides over the new court, is volunteering to speak in any open forum in order to get the word out. “It’s the fix-it court,” he says.
So how’s it coming? Well, slowly—at least compared to what the need out there must be. The court has seen an average of about three to four cases every Monday it’s operated since late May, some of which are the second rounds of cases that already had a first hearing. The biggest difficulty so far, according to advocates, has been actually getting landlords into court—they have to be professionally served with a summons, which add an expense onto a process in which low-cost and simplicity is key.
Once the two parties are in the courtroom, though, things seem to proceed smoothly. Wright, who began his career in 1972 as a small claims clerk in D.C. landlord-tenant court, knows housing conditions inside out. He methodically runs down the list of boxes checked on a plaintiff’s complaint—mold, rodents, HVAC, peeling paint, etc.—asking the landlord’s representative to respond. Sometimes, being taken to court is enough of an incentive to take action: In one re-hearing I saw at yesterday’s session, the landlord had taken care of all complaints to the tenant’s satisfaction, case dismissed.
That’s one of the best resolutions, though. In another case, at the Stanton Glen apartments in Congress Heights, the property manager insisted that the tenant’s issues with rodents, air conditioning, and carpets had all been fixed, but the plaintiff still wasn’t happy. “I still have terds everywhere,” she said. To rectify the situation, Wright sent out an inspector and set a date for the next hearing. If the inspector finds violations, the case could go to trial.
Still other cases are more complicated. One involved a resident of a transitional shelter for women with HIV/AIDS, who complained of bedbugs in her unit—but the shelter’s representative said her records didn’t even show that the plaintiff was even supposed to be in that unit, in which case she’d have no grounds to sue.
Next week, Wright will hear the case of an 80-year-old woman who is the last tenant in a four-unit building owned by Park Road Community Church, which has been pushing her to move out for years. She’s suing over the church’s failure to repair holes in the wall, plumbing leaks, a rodent infestation, and squatters. Spectators are welcome—to see what it’s all about, visit the D.C. Superior Court at 500 Indiana Avenue, room 200, every Monday morning starting at 9:00 a.m.
Cute stuffed mice image courtesy of flickr user florenceforrest.