It was there to see: a classmate and family standing with everything they possessed piled up on the sidewalk.
Even as a child, you wanted to turn away. Your friend, shamed to be seen by neighbors and classmates, guarding his family’s belongings — the worn-out chairs, scratched-up dresser drawers, jumbles of old clothes — because the rent hadn’t been paid and the landlord wanted him and his family out of the house and out of sight.
It was that look on their faces that broke the heart of a 10-year-old onlooker, a look that still haunts this present-day octogenarian: empty eyes disguising silent misery.
“Got put out.” Another name for eviction.
It was also the first under-the-radar step in the prettied-up process called gentrification — a development that in our nation’s capital is as common and as cold as ice.
Which makes it all the more painful to read this week’s DCist story “Thousands of D.C. Renters Are Evicted Every Year. Do They All Know To Show Up To Court?” (Full disclosure: the DCist article was funded by SpotlightDC: The Capital City Fund for Investigative Journalism, which I co-founded with local journalist and author Harry Jaffe.)
The report, by Josh Kaplan, was based on a nine-month investigation of the District’s eviction system, which, on paper, provides renters with rights that are administered inside the D.C. Superior Court.
In practice, though, it is a system that kicks D.C. tenants when they are down.
The rules state that renters confronted with eviction must be informed of their eviction hearing by summonses that are delivered by private process servers. In the District, a process server can be anyone over 18 who isn’t a party to the case. They are hired by landlords, or landlords’ lawyers.
Evidence that a tenant has been informed of the eviction hearing is a document called an affidavit of service. It is not a trivial piece of paper. The process server swears that he or she has served the summons.
The story this week documents an eviction system reeking of fraud.
DCist observed weeks of eviction proceedings in the courtroom, pored through more than 13,000 pages of court records, conducted nearly 60 interviews and, most critically, reviewed hours of security-camera footage that found “more than 600 cases in just two months where two process servers filed affidavits containing discrepancies that, if brought to a judge’s attention, would likely result in the eviction case being dismissed.” And that is a sampling of the work of just two process servers.
Those affidavits don’t sprout legs and walk themselves up to the judge. It is the landlord or the landlord’s lawyer who certifies to the court that the summons is accurate.
At bottom, the evidence is strong that some D.C. tenants are being put out of their homes based upon fraudulent documents. The exact number is unknown. But the public record indicates that the D.C. eviction system tolerates violations of the constitutional right to due process.
A process server swearing to have served summons at the same minute and hour that the process server was observed sitting in a courtroom; process servers claiming to have served multiple summonses in different parts of the city on the same day and hour.
Think of it: D.C. renters losing their landlord-tenant case by default because they simply did not know that eviction proceedings had been initiated against them — because the court summons was never served.
Being poor is not just a matter of not have enough money. Being poor is also a matter of not having your rights respected.
This week, the D.C. Council, working on an omnibus protection and eviction reform measure tied to the covid-19 emergency — and smacked in the face with the DCist reporting — passed a measure that requires time-stamped photographic evidence of a posted eviction notice at a tenant’s address. Well whoop-dee-damn-doo.
Don’t stop there.
Put in place vetting requirements for process servers — beyond reaching age 18 and having a pulse — and civil or criminal penalties for rules violations.
Is the eviction system allowed to get away with the argument that landlords and landlord-representation law firms are unaware of or somehow miss the contradictions in affidavits that they file in court? Affidavits they knew, or should have known, were false? The D.C. attorney general’s office and the D.C. Bar’s ethics folks should be all over this travesty of justice.
The city hosts a miserable eviction system that at day’s end produces only empty eyes disguising silent misery. It must change.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.