Last Wednesday, attorneys from seven law firms and government agencies participated in an informal training at Legal Aid on handling cases before the D.C. Superior Court’s Housing Conditions Calendar. The training was led by Staff Attorney Evan Henley who joined Legal Aid in September 2013 as a Skadden Fellow. Evan’s fellowship project focused on representing tenants in housing conditions cases and related advocacy.
The D.C. Superior Court created the Housing Conditions Calendar (HCC) in April 2010 after years-long advocacy led by Legal Aid and others. The docket is dedicated solely to cases brought by tenants seeking repairs to their rental units. Designed to complement to the Court’s Landlord and Tenant Branch, which handles eviction proceedings, the HCC provides a forum for the speedy, inexpensive resolution of cases involving landlords’ failure to maintain units in decent and sanitary condition as required by D.C. law. Legal Aid and other advocates had been working closely with the Court to create this calendar.
For tenants living in homes plagued by unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions such as collapsing ceilings, inoperable heat, and vermin infestation, the HCC has proven to be a meaningful option beyond the risky, often ill-advised, strategy of withholding rent and waiting to be sued for eviction so that they can raise the housing conditions as a defense in that suit.
At the training, Evan shared his experience representing his first housing conditions client – a mother who was living with her children in an apartment that needed several repairs and was infested with bedbugs. The infestation was so bad that the children were capturing the bedbugs in jars. The mother had reported the problems to the property manager for several months, but her concerns were dismissed, and no action was taken.
Evan filed a case against the landlord. However, the property was owned by a small, corporate entity, and it took some digging to identify an individual who was the responsible party. But, once Evan identified that person and he learned of the lawsuit, it didn’t take long for him to take action. Before the first court date, the landlord had arranged for bedbug remediation and ongoing extermination. The landlord made other needed repairs as well, including installing new carpeting and a new refrigerator.
Housing conditions cases are time-manageable pro bono matters limited to the discrete issues surrounding the landlord’s failure to properly maintain rental units. These cases provide attorneys with the opportunity to interact with clients, appear in court, conduct investigations, develop evidence, and, negotiate with opposing counsel/parties.