Only 12 percent of the 24,000 evictions authorized by D.C. Superior Court last year were carried out, according to a new D.C. auditor's report that contends the city's gummed-up eviction system poses major problems to both small landlords and paying tenants.
"The lack of evictions adversely affects the quality of life in the District," said D.C. Auditor Otis H. Troupe in a report that is likely to refuel debate over U.S. Marshal's Office procedures and laws protecting tenants.
The 17-page report described the District's eviction process, administered by the Landlord and Tenant Branch of Superior Court, as "slow and inefficient" and said landlords often have a hard time arranging to have a deputy U.S. marshal present. On an average day, between four and eight of about 100 deputy marshals are assigned to evictions, according to the report, despite a massive backlog.
Of the 23,700 eviction orders issued by the court in 1982, about 4,800 were scheduled, but of those only 2,751, or 12 percent, were carried out. Some of the scheduled evictions were canceled at the last moment, after the tenants paid their back rent or agreed to move out, the report said.
However, the report said that the majority of evictions weren't carried out because the marshal's office gave them a low priority and that there are currently more than 2,000 unexecuted orders.
"The impact can be measured in terms of the financial and human anguish caused to landlords and tenants," the report said. "The issue also affects the credibility of the courts in that orders of the court are not carried out in an efficient and timely manner."
Troupe said the lack of an aggressive eviction policy also has caused economic hardship for the District's 11,000-unit public housing program, which operated with deficits totaling $6.5 million in fiscal years 1980 and 1981. The city frequently has had trouble evicting nonpaying tenants, while those tenants who do pay are faced with cost-saving reductions in services, according to the report.
"The net result of a landlord and tenant process without enforcement is fewer rental units, less money spent on maintenance, and higher rents," the report stated.
Troupe's report recommended that the marshal increase the number of deputies assigned to evictions and that the city resume the practice of weekend evictions. The report also proposed amending the landlord-tenant law to extend the life of eviction orders from 35 to 60 days and that the city increase support services offered to evicted tenants.
The city's eviction policy has been the subject of intense debate for years. The controversy heated up last winter when the city and the marshal's office agreed to a plan to schedule evictions on Saturdays, using private companies hired by the landlords. About 400 such evictions were carried during a three-month period before the practice was stopped in the wake of numerous complaints that tenants were being unfairly treated.
A private eviction crew member was shot and killed March 30, a weekday, when he and two deputy marshals tried to evict a Northwest Washington family. Johnny Williams, 61, of 1529 Spring Place NW, later pleaded guilty to second degree murder in the slaying. Williams fired a rifle through his front door while the crew was trying to gain entry.
City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, said yesterday that Troupe's report would be highly useful to her and other council members who are concerned about the financial problems of small landlords but are reluctant to tamper with the politically sensitive eviction policy.
"To have an independent source say that small landlords have been disadvantaged takes it out of the political plane and enables us to do something about it. . . as a legislative body," Jarvis said.
Christopher R. Whittingham, staff attorney to the Neighborhood Legal Services, said yesterday that he was "dubious" about Troupe's contention that the court system was slow in responding to landlords.
"In my experience, the landlords have never had a lot of difficulty in getting a judgment against a tenant and getting it carried out," Whittingham said. "Many evictions were canceled for some reasons, such as the tenant moved out or paid off the debt or received some emergency assistance from the District of Columbia."
Gerald M. Auerbach, general counsel to the U.S. Marshals Service in the Justice Department, described Troupe's report as an "incomplete examination of the problem."
"Evictions will continue to suffer as long as the marshal's budget and personnel ceilings are limited by Congress, other court priorities consume what resources the marshal has, and the District of Columbia does not contribute," Auerbach said in a letter responding to the auditor's findings.