Leading up to D.C. Pro Bono Week, Legal Aid, Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center hosted a breakfast on October 13, 2016, to celebrate our pro bono partners on our Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project. The Project has been in operation for over a year now, matching tenants who are facing eviction with legal services and pro bono attorneys to represent them in court.
The Project focuses on eviction cases involving tenants living in subsidized housing, where tenants pay a percentage of market rent based on income and a government subsidy covers the monthly rent balance. For tenants with subsidies, the stakes in an eviction case are even higher – losing the case not only results in loss of the tenant’s home but also loss or the threatened loss of that vital housing subsidy.
Most tenants face these prospects alone. Legal Aid’s analysis of D.C. Superior Court records estimates that in 2015, only five to ten percent of tenants in the Landlord and Tenant Branch were represented by counsel, while 90 to 95 percent of landlords had attorneys.
Eleven firms have teamed up with Legal Aid and our Housing Right to Counsel partners to close this gap. Those firms are: Arnold & Porter, Covington & Burling, Crowell & Moring, DLA Piper, Hunton & Williams, Jenner & Block, Jones Day, Latham & Watkins, Sidley Austin, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Steptoe & Johnson. And we are in active discussions to bring several more firms on board.
The breakfast celebration was an opportunity to thank these firms and their attorneys for their ongoing participation in and support of the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project. Peter Edelman, Chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission and Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, opened the program. In his remarks, Professor Edelman observed how many things fall apart in peoples’ lives when they lose or are at risk of losing their housing. He cited a recent report issued by the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers that found that two-thirds of survey participants said that loss of housing and fear of homelessness was a constant concern.
Beth Mellen Harrison, supervising attorney in our Housing Law Unit, shared that Project attorneys have represented over 400 tenants, including over 125 cases that we have referred out to the partner law firms for pro bono representation. The Project is tracking the results in these cases, and already we can see that represented tenants are able to get cases without merit dismissed or receive more time to work out a reasonable settlement with their landlords, and, as a result, are at a lower risk for eviction.
Julie Gryce, an associate at DLA Piper, shared her experience working on a case referred through the Project. Julie noted that in the case she handled, the landlord’s allegations of lease violations were completely unsubstantiated, even after discovery. “Because our client had counsel – and a large law firm working for her – we saw a dramatic shift in the position the landlord was taking with us.” Ultimately, Julie helped her client work out a very favorable settlement agreement resulting in dismissal of the case.
Julie also read the words of her client, who made a powerful pitch for the Project:
I want to thank Julie for doing everything for me and still helping me out. This project really brought me a friend and without it, I would have been lost. To the attorneys considering taking a case or another case I’d say a lot of landlords take you to court because they think we don’t have a lawyer or any representation. They know we can’t afford lawyers to represent us so it was so good that Julie was there so I got to tell my story and she got to know me and that I wasn’t the person the landlord claimed I was.
James J. Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation, closed the program by recognizing representatives from the law firms participating and challenging them to do even more as we enter the second year of the Project.
The Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project also is helping to spur discussion in the District about expanding access to counsel for tenants in housing cases. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie has introduced a bill, the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016, to provide new funding for housing right to counsel projects. Attorneys from Legal Aid, our partners Bread for the City and Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and many other legal services providers testified at a hearing Wednesday in support of the bill, along with Julie Gryce, who again shared the story and words of her client.
Credit for photography goes to Tracy Schorn