I used to work as a delivery driver, a job that took me all around the city, my car a tiny corpuscle traveling through the vast bloodstream of Washington. I came to know the rhythm of the streets — the ebb and flow of traffic, yes, but also the human dramas that played out beyond my windshield.

There was one thing that bothered me every time I saw it: the telltale signs of an eviction.

It was a personal tragedy and a public humiliation — a home turned inside out, private possessions on display on the sidewalk.

That was 40 years ago. Today, it’s even harder for many Washingtonians to find — and keep — affordable housing.

According to a 2020 report from Georgetown University’s Brian J. McCabe and Eva Rosen, District landlords file an average of 32,000 residential eviction filings a year. “[This] process impacts nearly 18,000 unique District households, or about 11 percent of renter households,” the authors wrote.

The District charity Bread for the City — a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand — provides free legal services to people in danger of losing their homes.

“Most of our work is eviction defense,” said Amy Gellatly, supervising attorney at the nonprofit’s legal clinic. “Most of that comes down to the absurdly unaffordable cost of renting in the District of Columbia.”

Bread for the City’s 17-lawyer department does other things — including family law and law involving public benefits, identification and immigration — but the bulk of its work is with housing.

“Not everyone knows they can sign with a tenant’s attorney,” Gellatly said.

Often, she said, renters arrive at the landlord and tenant court at Judiciary Square and sign documents provided by their landlord’s attorney, signing away any rights they might have.

“They may have a defense,” Gellatly said. “We may be able to prevent eviction altogether. Maybe the landlord owes them money because of how bad the conditions are.

“Sometimes people think, ‘Maybe my rent is a little undermarket, so I should just accept mushrooms growing out of the ceiling or rats running around.’ But actually, in the D.C. law, you’re only legally obligated to pay full rent if the landlord is holding up their side of the bargain, providing a unit fully up to code. That’s a big part of the conversation we have with the tenant.”

The pandemic has changed things, of course. An eviction moratorium was put in place in the District. It was lifted in the fall. The landlord and tenant court meets virtually, its hearings held online.

That has its own complications.

“Many of the people we serve are older or don’t have a computer,” Gellatly said. “They are low income, not tech literate.”

Bread for the City’s lawyers are just a phone call away, able to help clients through the process. They can also connect clients with programs that provide financial assistance.

Often, it’s not a tremendous amount of money that has clients teetering on eviction. According to the D.C. eviction report prepared by Georgetown University, the average tenant owes $1,207 when he or she is summoned to court. Twelve percent of households owe $600 or less.

Gellatly said that Bread for the City’s legal services fit within its holistic approach to the people it serves. A patient visiting Bread for the City’s medical clinic who complains of an asthma flare-up because of mold in their apartment can be referred to the housing lawyers.

Gellatly earned her degree at American University’s Washington College of Law. She’s devoted to public interest law, not least because it upends the notion that the attorney should be calling the shots.

“We make the space for [clients] to explain what is going on in their own words,” she said. “I’ve seen other legal practices where the lawyer sees themselves as the expert or tries to take charge: ‘I know what's important! You just need to answer my questions!’

“I've really learned how the client is always the expert of their own story.”

She’s also proud of what she sees as the inherently anti-racist approach to the housing lawyers’ work.

Said Gellatly: “We know that eviction defense is a commitment to anti-racism, because of the history of housing segregation and decades of housing policies in D.C. that displaced Black people from homeownership and safe housing. That is why the people you see going through eviction court are overwhelmingly Black and poor.”

Every day, the attorneys at Bread for the City try to level that playing field.

Helping Hand

’Tis the season for giving. I hope you’ll consider giving to Bread for the City, one of three local charities that is a Helping Hand partner. To donate, visit the website posthelpinghand.com. To contribute a check by mail, send it to Bread for the City, Attn: Development, 1525 Seventh St. NW, Washington, DC 20001.

Read more from John Kelly.