A D.C. nonprofit group that has won national renown for its work in providing affordable housing for low-income persons will appear in court and before the city's rent control agency next week, arguing that it has the right to evict tenants from its buildings without having to go through the lengthy process mandated for most other D.C. landlords.
Jubilee Housing Inc. will appear in D.C.'s Landlord Tenant Court Tuesday and before the city's Rental Accommodations Office the following day to argue that it is exempt from the strict regulations that govern other owners of rental properties in the city.
Jubilee is attempting to evict four tenants from the Mozart, at 1630 Fuller St. NW, for alleged involvement with drug trafficking, according to court papers. The Mozart is one of six multifamily buildings the group operates in the Adams Morgan neighborhood.
The residents deny any association with drugs. They claim Jubilee is retaliating against them because they have protested the nonprofit group's failure to move ahead with its stated goals of turning over the Mozart to resident management and ownership.
While full tenant control is still an objective, Jubilee representatives say the organization had good reasons for the delay. "There were two problems, financial ones and social ones," explained Robert O. Boulter, the group's vice president. "The buildings weren't financially stabilized. The rents didn't cover the operating expenses, let alone needed capital improvements and reserve funds."
The nonprofit group has a fund-raising drive underway to collect money needed for those expenses, Boulter said.
The second problem, Boulter explained, has been the tremendous increase in the area's drug trafficking that occurred following the city's crackdown on crime along 14th Street. "The drug activity and the violence around the Mozart escalated tremendously," he said. "A handful of the residents in the Mozart became associated with the drug trafficking."
Under the provisions of the Rental Housing Act of 1980, D.C. landlords can evict tenants who break the law, but only if they can prove illegal acts have been committed. That is extremely hard to do in drug cases, according to Jubilee representatives. "How can you ask the person in the building to testify against his drug-dealing neighbor?" said Boulter.
"Here there is a tremendous fear of retaliation against tenants, with good reason. Violence is a real factor.
"It's virtually impossible for a landlord to make a case and evict in these situations. Drug problems can take over the building and the neighborhood."
If Jubilee's exemption from D.C.'s rental housing laws is upheld by the courts and the Rental Accommodations Office, the group will be able to evict building residents without having to prove they broke the law.
Only two other groups besides Jubilee have received an exception from the city's rental laws under a special provision of the Rental Housing Act of 1980. To qualify, an organization must be a nonprofit charitable group that provides "long-term temporary housing" to families with incomes below 50 percent of the median for the District. The rent on any such units must be less than the landlord's full operating costs. In addition, the owner must also provide "a comprehensive social services program for the families."
The Mozart defendants are not challenging that law or the two other groups' right to an exemption. Instead, they claim Jubilee does not meet the criteria mandated by the legislation and may have tried to obtain the exception to be able to evict residents more easily.
"It's bizarre to me that Jubilee was granted this exemption," said Edward Allen, an Antioch Law School professor and one of the supervisors of that school's student practice program. An Antioch student in that program is representing two of the defendants. "If Jubilee wins, there may be some real far-fetched groups coming into the RAO" to try to obtain an exemption, Allen added.
Jubilee offers its residents a full range of social services, Boulter insisted. These include job counseling, health care, and preschool education for children. The group also has run a program to train residents to operate and manage the buildings.
On Wednesday, the Rental Accommodations Office will hold a hearing to consider a petition filed by one of the Mozart residents claiming the RAO granted Jubilee an exemption without an adequate examination of the group and its social services program.
On Tuesday, the Landlord Tenant Court will hear arguments on a motion to stay the court proceedings until the RAO can issue a decision on the question of Jubilee's exception. If that motion is denied, the court will go ahead with jury trials of all four defendants on Sept. 29.
While recognizing the importance of D.C.'s strong pro-tenant legislation, Jubilee is frustrated by the complex legal maneuverings caused by it. "It enables persons of ill will to hide among their neighbors," said Boulter. "They can literally destroy a landlord, in our case a nonprofit.
"It's an incredible cat-and-mouse legal game. Most of the time we feel like the mouse."
Lawyers for the four defendants vigorously support their clients' right to the full protections accorded other D.C. renters.
"You can always make the claim that we have to take away the rights of some people for some good cause, but what makes the Jubilee tenants any different from tenants in other buildings?" said Richard Carter, deputy director of the D.C. Law Students in Court program. Carter is supervising two law students who are representing two of the Mozart defendants. "If the charge of involvement with drugs is true," added Carter, "why shouldn't they have to prove it? That's a basic principle of due process."
Adds Allen: "I think Jubilee has good intentions, but that doesn't make them exempt from the law."