Tales of human emergencies flow endlessly each day through Courtroom 7 of the District of Columbia Superior Court. Known as "L and T Court" - Courtroom 7 is the landlord and tenants court.
Judge Paul R. Webber III, this month's presiding judge, sits poker-faced and immobile throughout most of the long morning calendar.
A tall, elegant young woman says her son's father died in January. She paid the burial costs and now she's two months behind in rent. "With each payment I make there still becomes some due," she laments. The money, $373, can be paid by June 30, she says. However, the landlord won't wait.
A belligerent, young man representing his mother complains he has tried to pay her rent, $106, for two months now. He says the landlord has allegedly sold the house and won't accept the money.
"All I want to know is who should I pay? What should I do, your honor?"
An elderly man stands by as E.M. Harvell, a Department of Human Resources (DHR) court consultant, tells the judge the man can't pay his rent because he was robbed. The tenant will get emergency financial assistance once Harvell receives the full police report. He asks for a stay of eviction until this can be done.
Judge Webber's voice remains calm, even and firm with each judgment. Occasionally, though, the body gives way to expression: A broad smile, a flexing of the eyebrows or a gentle rocking in his chair.
He orders cases to continue following further investigations, sets trial dates for others and a few cases are settled by tenants who agree to move or pay the rent within a time period agreed to by the landlord. A few landlords are granted repossession of their property.
A court clerk said many of the clients don't understand the court procedures "and some of these (landlords') attorneys are pretty shrewd," he added. "It's an (emotional) hassle sometimes."
However, whenever a client asked for legal representation, Judge Webber searched the court for a law student or legal aide attorney to assist the client. He also questioned each client to make sure he or she understood the agreement signed with lawyers.
Occasionally Jack A. Martin, a burly, mountain of a man, steps into the court for a few moments. Martin is supervisor of the landlord and tenant court division.
Harvell, a dapper, older man, is a consultant under a landlord and tenant court consultant program which aids poor people. The consultant program, begun in 1942, is run by DHR and the Superior Court provides office space.
Most of the tenants in L and T court are fighting eviction for nonpayment of rent, the men said. Others are facing eviction for breach of lease. The tenants attribute their financial misfortunes to unemployment, untimely bills, illness, death, mismanagement of funds, robbery or the disabling effects of inflation on a fixed income.
In L and T court they fight these problems on landlords' turf. Only landlords can file complaints here, said Martin. Under the law, the court does not have the authority to give a stay of eviction without the landlord's consent, he added.
Clients are referred to the consultant service by the court, lawyers, and some come in on a walk-in basis, said Harvell. The service is limited in that it can only aid people with incomes. Yet, he said the major reason for tenants not paying their rent is unemployment.
In 1977, District landlords filed 110,461 complaints against more than 30,000 people, said Martin. He said many people have complaints filed against them more than once.
"One year there was a family that was evicted three times from three different pieces of property," Martin recalled.
Last year, 3,691 people were also scheduled to be evicted. However, the eviction process was only carried out against 2,361 people who were unable to provide the rent or a tangible excuse to get a stay of eviction until the rent could be paid.
According to 1977 court records, an average of 1,755 L and T cases went to court each month. The heaviest court loads were from August to November.
The tenants usually admit to being behind in rent, said Harvell. He said the role of the service is to try to help poor people keep their homes by helping them work out the financial problems that prevent them from paying rent.
"People with fixed incomes have the money to pay the rent," explained Harvell, "but they're so limited in what they have to operate with, any loss of income - even having to buy two extra loaves of bread - can cause an emergency."
Harvell and his assistant, Leslie Long, act as mediators between landlords and tenants. They work out late payment agreements with landlords and even put tenants on budgets, if necessary.
Limited financial assistance to pay back rent is given to clients needing emergency assistance - such as robbery victims or people waiting to begin a new job. Such clients, however, must be able to prove that they have an income and the ability to pay next month's rent without emergency assistance, said Harvell.
"We find mismanagement of money or budget problems running second, that used to be fourth or fifth on the list."
The two consultants interview about 350 people in cramped closet-like offices monthly. In the old L and T court at 613 G St. NW, the consultant service and the courtroom were on separate floors. The court provided the service with plenty of office space and they also had more staff members from DHR, said Harvell.
When the L and T court moved to the new courthouse, Harvell's office was allotted the cramped space near Courtroom 7. Within the last year, he said, staff members have been lost through retirements. Budget and space problems have prevented any new additions.
However, Harvell said he believes the limited quarters are only temporary until the organization of the new courthouse is completed. He doesn't know when the staff shortages will end. Meanwhile, he said the service will operate effectively as it can.