A Victory on the Landlord/Tenant Front – But Still a Long Way to Go

By Andy Silver, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Staff Attorney

Imagine that you have lived in the same apartment for 12 years. One day you go to the rental office to ask if you can pay your rent a few days late because you get one check at the beginning of the month and one check in the middle. You have asked for this favor several times before and it has always been granted, but this time the new property manager says she just needs to check to see if you are current in rent before she can say yes. You have no reason to think this would be a problem, because in the 12 years you have lived there you have always paid your rent and the property management has never mentioned anything to you about owing money. Today, however, is not your day. The property manager tells you the computer system shows that you owe almost five thousand dollars in back rent, the property has initiated a lawsuit in Landlord and Tenant Court asking a judge to evict you, and you should be expecting a court summons any day.

Although this would be a potentially devastating situation for anyone to have to deal with, for the Legal Clinic’s client, Ms. A, devastation escalated to life-threatening. You see, Ms. A, suffers from bi-polar disorder. The normal anxiety one might experience going to court and facing the possibility of losing one’s home was magnified for Ms. A because of her illness. She could barely function whenever her thoughts turned to her housing situation; on more than one occasion, she contemplated ending her life rather than dealing with her landlord and tenant case.

But despite the toll this was having on her, Ms. A found the courage to fight, and she sought representation from the Legal Clinic in the eviction suit she was forced to defend.

Ms. A explained that she’d heard rumors that the former property manager had been fired for stealing money and wondered whether that might be why the landlord thought she owed all that back rent. She was able to find money order receipts for three of the months that property management claimed she didn’t pay, which became part of her defense to the allegation of non-payment. She reported that property management hadn’t always made repairs to her apartment in a timely manner, which allowed her to counter-sue for housing code violations and seek a rent abatement for those months when the landlord failed to respond to her repair requests. But Ms. A’s ultimate goal was to end the litigation as quickly as possible, even if it meant she didn’t achieve the best legal result possible. For her, eliminating the stress of the lawsuit would itself be a great victory. We told her not to worry, that between the money order receipts and her counterclaim, it shouldn’t be hard to meet that goal and make this case go away.

Unfortunately, despite tracking the money order receipts and receiving proof that at least three of the “missing” rental payments were embezzled by a former employee of the property management, the landlord was unwilling to settle and the lawsuit dragged on. After five months of litigation and great emotional hardship for our client, the case finally settled. Ms. A didn’t have to pay any money and she received badly needed repairs to her apartment.

As challenging as this process was for Ms. A, if she had chosen not to fight the eviction or had failed to secure representation, she most likely would have lost her home. Unfortunately, the vast majority of defendants in landlord and tenant court are unrepresented. On top of that, a significant portion of these tenants have a serious mental illness, which makes an already difficult court process virtually impossible to navigate. The Legal Clinic is proud of the work we can accomplish for people like Ms. A, especially with limited resources! The reality of the matter though, is that despite our hard work and dedication the Legal Clinic is meeting only a fraction of the need for counsel in such cases. At a time when most of the shelter system is at capacity and affordable housing is nearly impossible to secure, it is vital that we work to prevent homelessness by helping those clients who are housed to protect their homes. That’s why we need help from community members like you!

If you are a lawyer, get involved by becoming a volunteer! You can use your passion and skills to help more clients like Ms. A. Contact our volunteer coordinator Nick Casalbore at nick@legalclinic.org for more information.

You can also donate to the Legal Clinic at: https://www.networkforgood.org/donation/ExpressDonation.aspx?ORGID2=521545522&vlrStratCode=paLRZsHhrut5DPg9NRGxE7qwg5Lf9ts%2fW01EqcEBt5S5wdZzRFpADFhAyF9EG0Wm

About Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless envisions a just and inclusive community for all residents of the District of Columbia, where housing is a human right and where every individual and family has equal access to the resources they need to thrive. Our mission is to use the law to make justice a reality for our neighbors who struggle with homelessness and poverty. Combining community lawyering and advocacy to achieve our clients’ goals, our expert staff and network of volunteer attorneys provide low barrier, comprehensive legal services at intake sites throughout the District of Columbia, helping our clients to access housing, shelter, and life-saving services. Rooted in the experiences of this client work, we effectively blend system reform efforts, policy advocacy, community education and client engagement to advocate for long term improvements in local and federal programs that serve the low- and no-income community.
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