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Yesterday, I wrote a bit about the Tenant Access to Justice Reform Act of 2009 which, if passed, would finally allow tenants to sue their landlords in D.C.’s landlord and tenant court.

Right now, landlords can only file claims within this branch, and tenants can only hope that if they withhold rent, their landlords will sue them so they can have their day in L&T court. There are other ways to file suit within the D.C. court system, but none that work at such a rapid clip. (More on that below.)

Anyway, yesterday several people affiliated with the Latino Economic Development Corporation, an organization that works with low-income tenants in D.C. (among other things), submitted testimony and/or spoke before before the D.C. Council’s Housing and Workforce Development Committee. Here is part of the statement submitted by Farah Fosse, Program Director of the Affordable Housing Preservation Program.

I think it pretty clearly outlines what can go wrong in L&T court using the ‘wait-to-be-sued-as-a-tenant-because-it’s-my-best-option” strategy:

“The first is that tenants put themselves at unnecessary risk of eviction. If a tenant fails to show up to Court because they did not receive the notice, did not receive the notice in their own language, were in the hospital or left the court room to go to the bathroom they can be evicted on a default judgment.

Secondly, the case becomes about missing money, not about conditions. One tenant we work with, Nnenneya Lantion from 5922 13th St NW whose testimony I am submitting, stated, “For me though, it was not about rent. I pay my bills and don’t have a problem paying rent but they need to fix the problems. That’s how the lease is supposed to work: I promise to pay rent and they promise to fix things when they need fixing. Unfortunately, the system right now only allows landlords to uphold the lease, not tenants.” Ms. Lantion had won the case against her for non-payment of rent – but because the case was about rent instead of conditions she was told she did not have to pay most of the rent she owed but the Judge did not order repairs, which is what she actually needed.

Thirdly, an owner can always decide not to sue a tenant. A number of tenants I work with have withheld rent increases and in some cases all the rent in hopes of getting sued for eviction so that they could have their day in court. Again, in Nnenneya’s case, she withheld rent a second time because she wanted repairs to be ordered. As she states in her testimony, “When the owner found I had a lawyer they dropped the case. Again, I didn’t have to pay but no one ordered repairs.”

And here’s Fosse’s  comment on why the current options for tenants in the court system are insufficient:

“I would also like to mention that some tenants we work with are able to file affirmative lawsuits. There are two options for this: sue in the Office of Administrative Hearings or in Superior Court. Both of these options are very slow and in both cases even a positive outcome is unlikely to result in repairs. The Office of Administrative Hearings can adjust the rent due to housing conditions, generally rolling back the rent, the process often takes a couple years and is best navigated with an attorney. Superior Court is also slow and expensive and extremely difficult to navigate without an attorney. We are currently working with one tenant association that is taking this route. We worked with them to find a pro bono attorney to represent them and they are lucky to be working with a team from Latham and Watkins. The tenant association has been working with this team for over eight months and the case is still in very preliminary stages. This process has been time consuming and onerous for LEDC, the tenants and the attorneys involved. It is in no way a comparable to the speedy and inexpensive remedy that landlords have in Lardlord-Tenant Court when tenants do not uphold the lease.”

Image by Umjanedoan Creative Commons Attribution License