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Opinion Low-income tenants in D.C. may soon get legal help

At some D.C. apartments, where tenants are overwhelmingly poor and recipients of housing vouchers, any violation of the lease — even walking your dog without a collar — becomes grounds for a suit for eviction. But far more common is suing over nonpayment of rent. Shown is Brookland Manor, a low-income housing complex that is undergoing redevelopment. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid having to go to landlord-tenant court to fight an eviction from your home, it can be hard to imagine just how overwhelming and scary the experience can be. Dozens of cases are processed each day, beginning with what is often referred to as a “cattle call.” Many tenants are pressured by lawyers representing their landlords to settle their case in the hallways outside of the courtrooms. If you don’t understand the legalese, it’s hard to know what’s happening to you and it’s almost impossible to know what your options are. All the while, you just want to avoid becoming homeless.

Consider this stunning imbalance: Of the 33,000 eviction cases filed annually in the District, fewer than 10 percent of tenants have legal representation during an eviction hearing; more than 90 percent of landlords are represented. That staggering disparity in representation puts tenants at a stark disadvantage.

Starting last spring, D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie brought attention to this issue when he led a roundtable and hearing on the issue, bringing together local leaders, community advocates, and residents who had lived through an eviction. It was clear we needed to take action to fix this imbalance.

As the D.C. Council considers next year’s budget, we are working to pass legislation that would provide funding for low-income tenants to be represented by a housing attorney at no cost. It’s called the “Expanding Access to Justice Amendment Act of 2017.”

Every day, low-income tenants enter agreements in court without understanding the consequences. Many tenants don’t even know to appear, and they receive a consent ruling, meaning an automatic writ of eviction is issued. From that point, they might come home from work one day to find their belongings on the sidewalk and their locks changed.

Unsurprisingly, most unrepresented tenants are low-income individuals who are being evicted for nonpayment of rent. In some cases, tenants believe withholding rent is their only recourse to demand basic repairs in their home. Regardless of the circumstances, having both parties informed of their rights and options would increase the fairness of the outcomes and reduce the number of evictions.

In a two-year pilot program that provided no-cost representation for District tenants facing eviction, participants were more than six times more likely to secure a favorable outcome (i.e., not being evicted) than those without representation. For a city struggling to fight serious housing challenges, that’s an outcome we desperately need.

But the benefits go further. Studies show eviction puts enormous strain on the health of a family. It creates instability at the workplace, toxic stress for children and housing instability. A downward spiral of negative outcomes soon follows. It badly damages credit scores for tenants, with effects that can last for years. We see the fallout from evictions across the District every day — in our schools, in our health-care system, in our public safety institutions, in demand for human services assistance. Eviction isn’t just a symptom of poverty; it is often the cause. For families on the verge of eviction, no-cost representation in court can be what keeps them from being pulled under into a cycle of economic desperation, from which too few ever escape.

For landlords, this may seem like one more challenging move by a city already considered tenant-friendly. Almost every landlord has a story about nightmare tenants. It seems very likely these problem tenants might be more responsive and reasonable if they were receiving legal advice. All we want to do is ensure equal protection under the law. The underlying laws are not changing; we just want to ensure low-income tenants, just like everyone else, understand those laws.

This is a small part of a larger national trend called “civil Gideon,” a nod to the case that established the right to counsel for criminal defendants and is now a growing movement to create a right to counsel in civil cases.

This legislation is an important opportunity to do more to prevent homelessness, and it’s the right thing to do. It is time to stop pretending that access to legal know-how and the justice it provides should be contingent on how much money you have. Like its criminal counterpart, civil representation for the poor is “fundamental and essential” to a fair trial and a fair shot for District tenants.

Charles Allen, a Democrat, represents Ward 6 on the D.C. Council. Kenyan R. McDuffie, a Democrat, represents Ward 5 on the D.C. Council. Mary M. Cheh, a Democrat, represents Ward 3 on the D.C. Council.