Last week, Legal Aid secured an important victory for tenants’ rights when the Court of Appeals decided Loney and Tenants of 710 Jefferson Street Opinion. The case involved a landlord’s effort to clear his building of low-income, mostly Latino residents based on a vague and unsupported claim that he planned to rehabilitate the property.
The case began in 2004, when Steve Loney bought the building at 710 Jefferson Street NW. Shortly after taking ownership, Loney began taking steps to clear the property of tenants. First, he filed largely baseless suits to evict them. Then, in an effort to intimidate the tenants – most of whom were immigrants with limited proficiency in English – he sent notices to everyone, stating that the Immigration and Naturalization Service would “soon be conducting interviews in the building.”
Loney’s next move was to file a petition for substantial rehabilitation with the D.C. government, seeking permission to renovate the building and raise the tenants’ rents to more than double their original amounts. D.C. law permits these rent increases if a landlord undertakes renovations so substantial that they will cost more than half of the value of the building, and if the renovations are “in the interest of the tenants.” But the tenants claimed that Loney’s plan did not come close to meeting this standard – and, after several years of agency litigation, the Court of Appeals agreed. The Court held that a landlord hoping to take advantage of the substantial rehabilitation law must show that each part of the proposal is in the tenants’ interest. This ruling is an important contribution to the law on rehabilitation and should give tenants an additional tool for fighting landlords’ petitions in the future.
The case also involved a claim for attorney’s fees, prosecuted on Legal Aid’s behalf by Jenner & Block. Because the tenants had prevailed before the agency, they were entitled to attorney’s fees. The Rental Housing Commission unilaterally reduced the fee award, on the ground that the hourly rate requested – the “Laffey Matrix” rate, which is routinely used for government and public interest attorneys – was too high. The Court ruled in our favor on this issue as well. Most importantly, it rejected the District’s claim that work before administrative agencies is automatically less “complex” than federal litigation and deserving of a lower fee rate.