A couple of weeks ago, I covered one piece of legislation working its way through the City Council that would prevent landlords from taking sudden, drastic rent increases while a hardship petition is pending. But there’s another bit of help on the way for tenants fighting landlords: A bill that would allow tenant organizations automatic standing in a court of law.
What? They don’t already?
Yeah. Under current regulations, registered tenant associations must gather signatures from more than half of all building residents before being granted standing in any given legal dispute. The Rental Housing Commission ruled last year that it really had to be half of all residents, not just heads of households, meaning a lot more legwork for anyone trying to hit the fifty percent mark. If they fail, tenants have no recourse but to file suit as individuals. And even if they succeed, the law gives landlords attorneys an opportunity to attack tenants associations on technical grounds, in a technique tenants advocates call “sniping”—targeting each signatory in an effort to deny the association standing.
“That in and of itself gets the courts mired in this completely pointless exercise of trying to determine whether the organization represents every tenant,” explains Joel Cohn, legislative director at the Office of the Tenant Advocate. “It’s a complete waste of resources. You’re paying attorneys to fight the battle instead of getting to what the issue is.”
Seeing how the lack of automatic standing was fouling the legal process, the OTA started pushing for a legislative fix early last year. Councilmember Jim Graham heard about the idea at a meeting of the Tenants Advocacy Coalition, and introduced a bill towards the end of the year.
At a hearing earlier this month, Randy Green of the Norwood Tenants Association illustrated the problem: The judge presiding over a dispute between his group and their landlord was susceptible to very procedure-based arguments. “She created all these hoops for us to jump through, and every time we did, she said that’s not good enough,” Green told Housing Complex. And, he explained, landlords have a reason to fear tenants organizations being granted automatic standing: It’s like allowing a class action lawsuit in your building.
Housing providers fighting the bill, though, say that they just have the renters’ interests at heart. In written testimony from a hearing earlier this month, Jeffrey Gelman with the DC Building Industry Association argued:
“The legislation is unnecessary and will only further exacerbate what has become a highly adversarial and litigious state of tenant-landlord relations in the District. In our view, adequate administrative means are already available for the filing of tenant grievances. In inserting tenant organizations into such filings, on behalf of both members and non-members, the bill would only elevate such filings to court-contest cases with all their associated costs and burdens. Unlike an attorney or other mandated service program to represent individual tenants, there are no legal or ethical rules governing tenant organizations’ conduct or representation of tenants. A tenant organization’s involvement could actually jeopardize and harm the interests of the individual tenant.”
Translation: A rogue tenant association might pretend to represent the will of the building’s residents, when it doesn’t at all. Gelman also raised the specter of multiple tenants associations having standing in the same case.
Whether or not that’s true, Cohn says that letting tenant associations file suit is a matter of Constitutional principle.
“Associational standing is a first amendment right,” he says. “And it gets even more Kafkaesque, because the District of Columbia’s own law says that an association has the right to represent any number of its members.”
The bill doesn’t yet have another hearing date, but Cohn expects it to have a fairly smooth passage through the Council once a final version is drafted.