The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would provide free legal counsel to low-income tenants in certain housing cases, including evictions, housing code violations and rental subsidy program issues.
The bill, written by council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), would create a funding stream for the D.C. Bar Foundation, the nonprofit group that provides most legal aid to D.C. residents involved in civil cases.
Under McDuffie’s plan, the D.C. Bar Foundation would administer grants for lawyers to represent tenants with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The council’s Judiciary Committee, chaired by McDuffie, will hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday.
It is unclear how much the program would cost taxpayers; McDuffie said Friday that he did not have an estimate.
The legislation is part of McDuffie’s ultimate goal of establishing a “right to counsel” in all civil cases in the District. Just as indigent criminal defendants are entitled to free legal help, low-income residents should be provided no-cost lawyers for a range of legal disputes, McDuffie said.
In an interview this week, McDuffie said he hopes the housing program will be so successful that it will bolster his case to expand free legal services in other areas.
But tenants involved in evictions and other housing disputes already have a number of resources available, said Nicola Whiteman, senior vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.
The D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate, for example, provides in-house legal representation to tenants in certain cases and refers them to pro bono or contracted legal-service providers and lawyers. In fiscal 2015, the D.C. Bar’s pro bono program provided 20,000 people with legal services ranging from information to full representation.
But the bill’s proponents say that existing services do not adequately address tenants’ needs. Last year, 94 percent of landlords were represented by counsel in cases filed in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the D.C. Superior Court, according to data compiled by the D.C. Legal Aid Society. Tenants were represented in just 5 percent of contested cases — those that were not dismissed before the first court date.
“They are receiving unjust outcomes because they don’t have a lawyer by their side,” said Beth Harrison of the Legal Aid Society. “And that is what an infusion of money and lawyers can address.”
The legislation would allow providers of legal services, such as the Legal Aid Society, to apply for grants from the D.C. Bar Foundation to fund projects. One such effort is the Legal Aid Society’s Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project. The program represents tenants who pay income-based rent in subsidized housing but face eviction, Harrison said.
Tenants without lawyers generally reach payment agreements quickly — often on their first day in court — and undertake to pay on a very tight schedule all the money that has been claimed by the landlord, she said. Unrealistic agreements entered during housing disputes can lead to evictions, she said.
“The consequences of unaddressed legal problems can be devastating to residents throughout the District and really spill over to other aspects of people’s lives,” McDuffie said. “So a person who’s been evicted, for example, may also have difficulty holding down a job and keeping their child at school.”
But Whiteman said many housing providers are individuals, not the large companies often associated with predatory evictions.
“A lot of rental properties are being provided by Jane and John Doe government employees,” Whiteman said. “And those folks aren’t necessarily wealthy people.”
A missed rental payment could hurt the livelihoods of small landlords, Whiteman said. And those small landlords also need legal help navigating the District’s rental-housing laws, she said.
The bill, introduced Sept. 20, has received near-unanimous support from the council. McDuffie introduced the legislation last month along with council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). David Grosso (I-At Large) is the only council member who has neither introduced nor sponsored it.
One of the final hurdles is funding, which McDuffie called the biggest challenge at this point. He said he is “working diligently” with the budget office to determine the best funding method but did not specify where the money might be obtained.
The legislation fits into a national movement toward free legal counsel in all civil cases, unofficially dubbed “civil Gideon” in reference to the 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the court ruled that defendants have a constitutional right to a lawyer in criminal cases.
Last month, the New York City Council held a hearing for a similar bill that would provide counsel for low-income residents in eviction cases. Like McDuffie’s measure, the New York bill would target tenants with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
In the District, where housing costs are among the fastest-rising in the country, McDuffie said he is concerned about growing pressure on low-income residents and resulting displacement.
“Everybody recognizes the need, and I think they’re generally supportive of what we’re trying to accomplish here,” McDuffie said.