Representatives of Washington's two leading landlord groups called on the city government yesterday to take over supervision of evictions from the undermanned U.S. Marshals Service to ease a rising backlog of evictions.
James G. Banks, executive vice president of the Washington Board of Realtors, and Donald Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association, told a D.C. City Council committee that city landlords would pay off-duty police officers to oversee the evictions.
Washington is the only jurisdiction in the country where U.S. marshals, who protect federal prisoners and provide courtroom security, oversee evictions of tenants who have failed to pay their rent. In most jurisdictions the sheriff's department accompanies eviction crews and oversees the removal of a tenant's belongings.
Last year 2,700 Washington families were evicted for nonpayment of rent, said D.C. Superior Court administrator Larry Polansky. He said 23,000 writs were issued for evictions but many of these were repeats because the 90-day life of the writs expired before they could be executed and landlords received new ones. In other cases, tenants avoided eviction by paying rent.
The Marshals Service has a backlog of 2,000 evictions that have been approved by the court but not carried out, the landlords told the committee yesterday.
Council member John Ray, chairman of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, called yesterday's roundtable discussion on the growing eviction problem. He said he supported transferring eviction duties from the federal to the city government, but that he was unsure which local government agency should get the job.
"The marshals don't want to do it," Ray said after the informal hearing. "It is a second-class activity to them and they don't have the manpower to do it."
"We welcome the proposal to transfer evictions because of the manpower shortage. We try and start out every morning with the intention to do evictions but with the workload from the courts, evictions are not our top priority," said Daniel Wigfall, chief deputy U.S. marshal.
He said 104 marshals are assigned to the District, but 14 are generally out every day because of sick leave or vacation. Of the remaining 90, 60 are assigned to the cellblock and courtrooms of D.C. Superior Court and 30 to the warrant squad, U.S. District Court and other duties.
But Capt. Sammie Morrison, finance officer of the city police department, said, "We are not looking to get involved" in evictions. "It would necessitate additional police officers and we are not looking for work not identified as police work."
The city housing department, with 12,000 public housing units, is Washington's largest landlord. Housing department director James E. Clay agreed with the private landlords yesterday that "it is very difficult for us to collect rents when they tenants see we are in the position to take no action against those who ignore us."
Clay said his department is looking at the transfer proposal, but he was not ready to endorse it.
Last year landlords, who say they are losing thousands of dollars because of the city's lax eviction system, agreed to pay marshals overtime to carry out evictions on Saturdays.
But the weekend evictions brought vociferous criticism from local tenant organizations. D.C. Mayor Marion Barry intervened in November, and the U.S. Justice Department, which had originally approved the plan, decided it needed further study. No Saturday evictions have been carried out since then.