Evictions, Poor Living Conditions & Homelessness: This is the Housing Crisis in DC

“Next,” calls out the security guard behind the metal detector at DC’s Landlord Tenant Court. Ms. Lee[1] walks up, struggling to manage her belongs along with the stroller carrying her six-month-old baby. “Which way is landlord tenant court?” she asks. After waiting in what feels like an endless line, Ms. Lee walks to the courtroom where another line awaits her. Ms. Lee’s eviction case is only one of the 200 plus cases on the Landlord Tenant Court docket for that day. After the courtroom clerk completes roll call, Ms. Lee hears the Judge mention an organization named DC Law Students in Court (LSIC) that provides legal counsel to tenants who cannot afford an attorney.

Ms. Lee is overwhelmed. It had only been a few days since she came home to find a court summons on her door stating that she was being evicted from her home. According to her landlord, Ms. Lee failed to pay rent and violated the lease by failing to timely submit her Housing Choice Voucher Program recertification application. [2] Ms. Lee has now been at the courthouse for two hours and finds herself in yet another line, this time outside the LSIC courtroom office. As she waits, she considers giving up but she knows her six children are depending on her to resolve their housing crisis. A loss in her case would not only result in her family being evicted from their home rendering them homeless, it would also mean she would likely lose her DCHA voucher which she relied on to maintain a roof over her family’s head.

Washington, DC is best known as home to the most famous house in America, the White House. However, in the shadow of the manicured lawns located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue thousands of DC residents are experiencing a housing crisis.

Ranked the fourth most expensive city in North America[3], rising rents has nearly eliminated all low-cost housing options in DC’s private market.[4] In turn, high housing cost burdens has severely impacted the ability of District low-income households to maintain shelter. [5] Per an article produced by Claire Zippel, an author for the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, “more and more of the city’s lowest-income residents now spend half or more — even 80 percent — of their income to keep a roof overhead, with damaging ripple effects to their lives.” [6] “When families are at risk of eviction, or cannot afford to fill the fridge or even afford bus fare because nearly everything goes to rent, the chances of getting ahead are slim.” [7]

For the 16.6% of DC residents living in extreme poverty, rent payments are but one thing on a long list of things to worry about. In addition to struggling with rent obligations, thousands of Washingtonians are living in public housing units that are decaying around them. According to a report produced by National Public Radio, of the 2,500 public housing units in DC, one-third are in such disrepair that they are unfit for habitation.[8] Living in decrepit housing not only impacts a tenant’s quiet enjoyment of their home, but such conditions can lead to and exacerbate existing health conditions. For example, mold, a recurring public housing condition, can lead to asthma and allergic reactions so severe that some tenants have gone into respiratory failure.[9]

In Ms. Lee’s case, her housing crisis led her to room 210 located in the DC Superior Court Landlord Tenant Branch.[10] Believing in the promise that a lawyer would be available to her, she knocked upon the door of room 210 and waited. About an hour later the distress on Ms. Lee’s face had calmed, as did the cries of the baby in her arms who she was rocking back and forth. An attorney from LSIC not only reviewed her case and counseled her on the steps she should take to maintain her housing voucher, but they also offered to represent her free of charge, in her eviction case.

The thought that she would no longer have to deal with her case alone gave Ms. Lee hope and empowered her to continue fighting for housing justice.

At DC Law Students in Court (LSIC), we fight every day, every hour the courthouse is open, to defend DC residents facing eviction. Designed to “level the playing field,” our advocates are committed to ensuring equity is served in DC’s Landlord Tenant Court. At the core of our housing program, the ideology of “Civil Gideon[11]” is deeply imbedded. We believe that every person facing eviction in DC should have access to legal counsel that will zealously advocate on the tenant’s behalf. Whether that means educating a tenant on their housing rights, defending them in court, or providing tenants with social work assistance to alleviate the conditions they are experiencing, LSIC’s advocates are determined to do whatever it takes to make housing justice a reality for those DC residents who desperately need it.

Ms. Lee is one of close to 4,000 clients that LSIC will serve this year.

[1] This client’s name has been changed to protect her anonymity.

[2] District of Columbia Housing Administration (DCHA) Housing Choice Voucher program helps low and moderate-income residents find affordable housing by providing vouchers to help participants pay rent in privately owned properties across DC.

[3] https://wtop.com/business-finance/2018/03/dc-ties-san-francisco-at-no-4-on-most-expensive-cities-list/

[4] http://www.capitalcommunitynews.com/content/dc%E2%80%99s-housing-crisis-leaves-low-income-families-without-foundation-1

[5] http://www.capitalcommunitynews.com/content/dc%E2%80%99s-housing-crisis-leaves-low-income-families-without-foundation-1

[6] http://www.capitalcommunitynews.com/content/dc%E2%80%99s-housing-crisis-leaves-low-income-families-without-foundation-1

[7] http://www.capitalcommunitynews.com/content/dc%E2%80%99s-housing-crisis-leaves-low-income-families-without-foundation-1

[8] https://www.npr.org/2019/05/16/723231160/trump-administration-wants-to-cut-funding-for-public-housing-repairs

[9] https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/article/21060618/as-dc-weighs-how-to-fix-its-public-housing-families-keep-getting-sicker

[10] LSIC’s courthouse office is located in room 210 of the DC Superior Court Landlord Tenant Branch.

[11] Civil Gideon is the idea that, similar to the fundamental right to counsel afforded to criminal defendants, low-income civil defendants should also have a fundamental right to counsel. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/10/clarence-gideon-wainright-civil-legal-aid.html