When Elois Reed received word last year that the rent for her Northwest Washington apartment was going up, her reaction was predictable.
"I was extremely angry, ready to fight, really. And I found there were quite a few tenants who felt the same way."
Reed, who says her building had leaks, mice and doors that wouldn't lock, contacted other tenants and enlisted the help of University Legal Services. After a year-long legal battle, the landlord agreed to make substantial repairs before raising the rent.
The tenants are grateful for the help ULS provided. "We got fantastic service from Laurie," said Reed, referring to staff attorney Laurie Farnham. "She was there anytime we needed help."
Attorneys at ULS, a nonprofit law firm that has served low-income clients for 11 years, began specializing in housing matters two years ago. In addition to fighting rent increases, housing code violations and evictions, ULS helps tenants form cooperatives to buy their own apartment buildings.
University Legal Services is primarily funded by United Way, which gave the group $15,000 last year and $30,000 this year.
Before receiving United Way grants, ULS had financial troubles. "We were really struggling," Farnham said. "We were losing staff."
Some attorneys, including ULS director Myles Glasgow, worked without pay during the leanest months while federally paid VISTA attorneys earned about $3,000 annually. Until this year, the highest annual salary for a ULS attorney was $7,000, said Farnham.
Now, with United Way funding, "we're able to give our clients good service. We aren't having to cut corners," said Farnham.
The current ULS staff includes five attorneys, one urban planner, a paralegal, three housing counselors and two office employes.
Other financial support for the firm comes from the D.C. Bar, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, private contributions and a new grant from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.
ULS was founded by two priests from Catholic University 11 years ago. They named it University Legal Services in hopes that Catholic's law school would adopt the service as a clinical program. The university never did, however.
The firm is unique in that its clients work on their own cases in exchange for legal help. Clients have done such things as organize and attend tenant meetings, survey tenants' opinions and research records at the Recorder of Deeds office. Sometimes clients have done clerical work in the ULS offices, at 324 H St. NE.
The tenants' involvement seems to result in a close working relationship with the ULS staff.
Raqeeba Taskeen, a tenant at 1210 Massachusetts Ave. NW, said, "Some people you can go to from 9 to 5, and that's it. But they are extremely receptive at University Legal Services."
ULS is helping Taskeen and her neighbors, who formed a cooperative to buy their building. They hope to sign a contract later this month for the sale of the building.
Taskeen feels the work ULS is doing is important, in view of the displacement of tenants caused by condominium conversions.
"If you look around D.C. you see the only way to hold on here is to be an owner," she said. "Otherwise, you become subject to the owner's whims. There's a massive shift (tenant displacement) here. And what's affecting the shift is the dollar."
Farnham said tenant displacement is a problem nationally, but is especially serious in Washington.
Forming cooperatives and buying buildings are not simple tasks for tenants, said Farnham. "It's hard, because it is a long process, with intense involvement in making decisions."
She said the process for getting a tenant purchase has taken from eight months to three years, which includes "an awful lot of night meetings" with tenant groups. At those meetings -- some are held in both Spanish and English -- ULS workers inform tenants of their rights and their options. Then they give step-by-step directions and assistance in buying the building.
"Housing is a major issue in this city, and helping people buy is a long-term solution," said Farnham. "It is so time-consuming that we can't help as many as we'd like, but the impact is very significant."