What obligation does a landlord receiving a subsidy from the government have when an apartment burns down, through no fault of the tenant, forcing the tenant into homelessness? Legal Aid just obtained a very favorable settlement for a client in precisely these circumstances. Handing the client the check in the amount of $15,000 was among the most satisfying moments in my Legal Aid career.
There is a severe shortage of affordable housing in the District of Columbia. The affordable housing stock is shrinking and very low income residents are paying high percentages of their income just for shelter. As a result, a housing subsidy may make the critical difference between shelter and homelessness. In this case, the failure of a landlord to move promptly to provide housing had just that effect.
Ms. Mead (whose name has been changed to protect confidentiality) had lived in her apartment with her two minor children for nearly 10 years. Her landlord privately owns the building and is a participant in the federally subsidized Project Based Section 8 Program. This means that her landlord receives federal funds to offer affordable apartments to eligible individuals.
When a fire destroyed Ms. Mead’s home of ten years, she was devastated. Not only had she lost her personal belongings, but she no longer had a place to stay. Although her landlord had other subsidized units, the landlord refused to provide her with an alternate place to stay. The landlord then took its time in fixing up the apartment.
In the interim, Ms. Mead and her children were rendered homeless and were forced to live separately. Because her subsidy was tied to her unit, she was not able to rent a different apartment at a price she could afford. She was left with no choice but to wait until her landlord reinstated her to her unit.
Legal Aid filed a complaint against Ms. Mead’s landlord, first, to get her re-instated to the apartment, and, second, to provide compensation for the landlord’s taking so long to repair the apartment. During the litigation, it became clear that the landlord had made few efforts to provide for Ms. Mead’s return to her apartment. We suspect that the landlord was hoping that if it waited long enough, Ms. Mead would simply go away. In the end, it took 17 months before Ms. Mead and her family were able to return to the apartment. Her landlord initially filed papers arguing that it was not responsible for making the repairs. With the possibility of a trial awaiting, however, the landlord ultimately agreed to settle the case, paying the client $15,000. This money will be life-changing for this client, who ordinarily receives around $500 in income monthly.
Several attorneys at Legal Aid staffed this case, including Julie Becker, Beth Harrison, and myself. We are thankful for the pro bono support we received from attorneys David B. Killalea and Kami Quinn at Gilbert LLP.