Pro Bono
  • Print Page

Housing Right to Counsel Project

Mother and Child

For an individual or family already struggling with the daily burdens of living in poverty, the consequences of an eviction can reach far beyond losing one’s home. Evictions are fundamentally destabilizing. It can take months or years to secure a new place to live in the District of Columbia, where the supply of affordable housing is declining. Those without friends or family to rely on in the interim may be forced to live on the streets or in a shelter. Children may stop attending school. The prospect of finding a job or remaining employed becomes much more difficult.

Public and Subsidized Housing Tenants Are Particularly Vulnerable
If a person or family is evicted from public or subsidized housing, they will lose their home and very likely their housing subsidy. In the District of Columbia, where there are 40,000 people on a subsidized housing waiting list, which has been closed to new applicants since 2013, a person who is evicted will almost surely never obtain public housing again.

Landlord and Tenant Court in the District of Columbia
Landlord and Tenant Court in the District is harsh. It is often referred to as “eviction court.” Over 34,000 eviction cases are filed annually in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court. There is a severe imbalance of power in this court, where 95 percent of landlords are represented by counsel, while 90-95 percent of tenants appear pro se. Without legal representation, many tenants sign agreements waiving their defenses because they are not aware of their rights.

A Lawyer Can Make a Big Difference
Cases involving housing subsidies are particularly complex, and tenants who appear pro se do not fare well. Tenants who are represented by counsel have a much greater chance of keeping their housing and their subsidy.

The outcome of a housing case illustrates the difference pro bono representation can make in the life of a family:

A mother of three children, one of whom is disabled, was sued by her landlord for eviction over a few hundred dollars in unpaid rent. Meanwhile, the landlord had ignored multiple housing code violations including a lack of hot water, roach infestation, a hole in the ceiling, and inoperable appliances. Pro bono counsel assigned through the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center settled the client’s case. The landlord was required to make necessary repairs, and the client kept her housing subsidy. Her family now lives in a place that is more healthy, safe, and secure.

Housing Right to Counsel Project: A Community-Wide Response
In 2013, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center with the D.C. Access to Justice Commission brought together the legal services community and the private bar to address the housing crisis in the District. The result of this effort became the D.C. Right to Housing Initiative, a multi-pronged effort with the following four broad goals:

• Provide counsel to tenants facing eviction from subsidized or public housing;
• Revamp the broken shelter and emergency housing system;
• Preserve existing affordable housing and increase production of affordable housing; and
• Litigate to enforce fair housing laws and advocate for policy changes.

The Housing Right to Counsel Project is a key piece of this groundbreaking initiative. The project aims to dramatically reduce evictions by increasing access to pro bono representation for people living in subsidized housing, who are particularly vulnerable tenants. The Housing Right to Counsel Project guarantees free representation to a percentage of subsidized housing tenants who are sued for eviction.

The significant impact of pro bono representation is evident: A recent analysis demonstrated that Housing Right to Counsel Project clients are 5 times less likely to get a writ of restitution (the order that allows U.S. Marshals to schedule an eviction) and 3.5 times more likely to enter into settlement agreements.

Law Firm and Legal Services Commitment
The Housing Right to Counsel Project is a collaborative effort between District legal services providers and law firms. In addition to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, participating organizations include Bread for the City, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, and Legal Counsel for the Elderly. Fourteen law firms have signed on to the project. Four law firms — Sidley Austin, DLA Piper, Jenner & Block, and Hogan Lovells — are partnered with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center to accept subsidized housing cases.

Past D.C. Bar President Timothy Webster has personally seen the impact of this initiative.

“I have taken two cases and they have been eye-opening. Sitting in my comfortable office at Sidley Austin it is hard to imagine there are people who can’t afford to pay their $100 share of subsidized rent some months or whose apartments are so cold in the winter that their family has to live and sleep in the living room for warmth. But there are many such people in our community, and this initiative is designed to get them the help they need in their time of crisis.”

We aspire to offer counsel to all tenants living in subsidized housing who are facing eviction as pro bono and staff resources increase.

D.C. Right to Housing Initiative Partners
Bread for the City
Children’s Law Center
D.C. Access to Justice Commission
D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center
D.C. Law Students in Court
Empower DC
Equal Rights Center
Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law Center
Latin American Economic Development Center
Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia
Legal Counsel for the Elderly
Neighborhood Legal Services Program
People for Fairness Coalition
UDC Housing and Consumer Law Clinic
Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

For more information, please contact Gabriella Lewis-White at [email protected].