Maroin Barry, Councilmeber Ward 8 During an interview with LL
Maroin Barry, Councilmeber Ward 8 During an interview with LL

Marion Barry heard testimony today on the Tenant Access to Justice Reform Act of 2009

You don’t need to spend much time in D.C.’s landlord and tenant court to learn a rather perplexing fact about how the place is run: Tenants don’t file lawsuits here—they’re not allowed. The tenants are always defendants; the landlords and/or their representatives are always the plaintiffs.

That’s not to say that tenants don’t visit good ‘ole L&T court seeking justice. It’s just a complicated maneuver to get there:

“The advice I give people is to withhold your rent and get sued,” according to Vytas V. Vergeer, legal clinic director at DC-based nonprofit Bread for the City. “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.”

Vergeer and I have not spoken personally. Earlier today, he testified before the D.C. Council’s Housing and Workforce Development Committee on the merits of a bill introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh titled the “Tenant Access to Justice Reform Act of 2009.”

Vergeer was joined by D.C. tenants, nonprofit lawyers and organizers and other stakeholders, including representatives from a D.C.-area building owner association.

The “Justice Reform” act would allow tenants the right to sue in L&T court just like their landlord counterparts.  Beyond Mr. Vergeer’s aforementioned advice to just quit paying rent and hope to get sued in L&T court, tenants can currently file lawsuits elsewhere in the civil division of superior court. But the process is longer and  “is nearly impossible to navigate without an attorney,” stated Julie Becker, a Senior Staff Attorney from the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, during this morning’s hearing.

Allowing tenants to sue in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia just makes sense. And even Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who led today’s hearing—-and is still leading the hearing at the time of this posting—-acknowledged he’d been aware of the problem for decades, going back to the early part of his tenure as mayor. That’s left me thinking: Really, what is taking so long?

Image by Darrow Montgomery