Steve Hessler, Lawyer
Steve Hessler, Lawyer

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Objection!: Landlord attorney Hessler says speedy creation of a new court is not practical.

Every weekday morning at 9 a.m., D.C. landlord and tenant court begins with a mind-numbing exercise: roll call. The clerk stands up front and reads the names.

Some landlords grasp little satchels and clunky brief cases and nervously respond when called; lost-looking tenants do the same. Only the lawyers representing big building owners and management companies, who bring scores of cases, seem comfortable.

The process drags on for at least an hour, and then the cases begin. That’s when you start to notice something striking: None of the plaintiffs are tenants. They’re all landlords—and that’s by design. No tenants can file claims here. Really, this place should be called “Landlord Court.”

So where do tenants go to get speedy relief if their roof is leaking or they have a pre-existing bedbug condition and the landlord hasn’t done squat?

They can file a petition in the Office of Administrative Hearings or a suit in Superior Court’s civil division. But attorneys and tenant organizers say both of these options are time-consuming and often unsatisfying. At best, tenants can usually hope for only a partial victory: a reduction in rent because of unacceptable living conditions, for example, may not be accompanied by an order to make any fixes.

Vytas V. Vergeer, legal clinic director at D.C.-based nonprofit Bread for the City, actually urges tenants to try to get dragged into landlord and tenant court; that way, they’ll at least get a quick hearing of their complaints.

“The advice I give people is to withhold your rent and get sued [there],” Vergeer said. “I tell people the best way to assert your rights is to get sued and risk being evicted. I’m ashamed every day I give that advice, but that’s the best way to do it.”

That’s what Vergeer told Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry and other members of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing and Workforce Development at a hearing last month on a bill that would fundamentally change the way landlord and tenant court does business: The Tenant Access to Justice Reform Act of 2009 would allow tenants to file suit there, too.

“Even when I was mayor, we didn’t do enough,” Barry said during the hearing.
The D.C. Superior Court, of which landlord and tenant court is part, came into being during the 1970s by an act of Congress. Since then, the landlord-tenant issue has been brought up several times, says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.

In 1988, then D.C. Bar chairman Charles Horsky testified before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, advocating a number of positions that would improve tenant representation in court.

“What’s important about the Horsky report is so little has changed since then. There’s fundamental imbalance in that court,” says Smith.

In the mid-1990s, lawyer Kim Keenan, the head of the D.C. Bar, led a task force that examined many of the same issues. Its findings prompted the creation of the Landlord and Tenant Resource Center, staffed with volunteer lawyers assisting tenants in landlord and tenant court right next door.

But still, tenants couldn’t sue. Legal Aid attorney Julie Becker helped draft the Tenant Access to Justice bill with a number of other tenant lawyers and organizers following the Washington Post’s 2008 series on abominable building conditions and landlord abuses.

“We were hoping in the wake of that, it might be a good time for several reforms, not just this one,” says Becker. The group approached Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh in April 2008 and began working with a member of her staff, Jeremy Faust.

When the legislation was introduced in January, the court’s leaders didn’t exactly applaud.

Lee F. Satterfield and Eric T. Washington, the chief judges of D.C.’s Superior Court and the Court of Appeals, respectively, sent a letter to Cheh. Between the cumbersome chunks of D.C. code and heavy footnotes, the message was clear: Don’t step on our turf. The judges claimed the adjustment would be expensive (“judicial and non-judicial staff, space, and equipment would be necessary to meet the increased caseload”) and hard to manage (“Without such additional resources, the scheduling of those cases would be delayed”). They also claimed it would be illegal, under the District’s Home Rule Act, which prohibits councilmembers from affecting the court’s operations.

Satterfield set out to find his own solution to the court’s tenant problem. He appointed Judge Melvin Wright to head a committee of landlord and tenant representatives and other members of the bar to “develop a consumer friendly, expedited process in the Court’s Civil Division for tenants to seek remedies from landlords for housing code violations,” as he described it in a statement to Washington City Paper.

The group convened earlier this year, meeting every two weeks, often at length—until its work was abruptly halted for the rest of the year, according to committee member Steve Hessler. Clearly, Satterfield had been irked by testimony at the Council hearing. Committee members wondered whether it would meet again.

“I have a tremendous investment in this,” says Hessler, a lawyer with a wide base of landlord clients, including J.P. Morgan, Republic Properties, and
Douglas Development. “I’ve done two enormous memos—think term papers—advocating certain positions, jurisdictional points, procedure points.” Hessler says he’s worried about potential issues of parity between landlords and tenants. For example, he says, landlords wishing to file suit in the court must fill out “mind-numbingly difficult” paperwork. He wants to ensure any new process for tenants would be equally rigorous.

The Nov. 30 council hearing brought a predominantly pro-tenant group of speakers, including Legal Aid’s Smith and Bread for the City’s Vergeer. The bulk of D.C.’s landlord advocates either didn’t know about the proceeding—Hessler says he didn’t hear about it until that day—or neglected to show up. One exception was a group from the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. Peter Bonnell, an executive with Urban Investment Partners, which owns and manages buildings in the District, spoke out against the legislation.

“The bill is unnecessary since there are existing remedies available to tenants and the mayor has launched a proactive housing inspection program” with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Bonnell said.

But even with tenant advocates pushing for the change, Barry indicated that he may not move the bill forward right away. Johanna Shreve, head of the Office of Tenant Advocate, urged him to await the findings of the court-appointed committee, and Barry agreed to meet with members of the court in the coming week to determine how to proceed.

“If that’s the way things were left at the end of the hearings with Mr. Barry, why we didn’t roll up our sleeves and get back to this is beyond me,” says Hessler, who hadn’t heard about Barry’s decision to meet with the judges until being informed by a reporter.

Satterfield says that the court committee has made “significant progress” and that he expects a recommendation “in the near future.”

But participants on both sides describe a more contentious process.

“This is a highly polarizing, very political area. There are very strongly held positions,” says Hessler.

“There’s been almost no progress,” says Smith.

By Friday, after a meeting with Judge Wright, Hessler said the committee’s work would continue and that members would meet again in early 2010. He’s heard the group will be more “streamlined” and possibly include fewer people.
Judge Wright did not respond to requests for comment.

“Setting up a new court is not like chess club,” says Hessler. “This wish and a prayer by the legal services community that all of a sudden we create a court—it’s not practical, it’s not rational.”

This story will appear in this week’s print edition of the Washington City Paper.

Image by Darrow Montgomery