Last week, Legal Aid testified in support of two different bills that provide additional legal protections to particularly vulnerable subsets of our client community. The first bill—the Language Access for Education Amendment Act of 2015—adds, among other improvements to the original Act, a private right of action so that people who are limited English proficient and suffer violations of Language Access Act can enforce their rights in court. The second bill—the Elderly and Tenants with Disabilities Protection Amendment Act of 2015—improves existing rent control laws for tenants that are elderly or have a disability, helping them to stay in their rent-controlled homes in a difficult rental housing market.
Language Access for Education Amendment Act of 2015
On July 1, 2015, Legal Aid was one of an estimated 70 public witnesses who testified in support of the Language Access for Education Amendment Act of 2015. This legislation will vastly improve enforcement of the Language Access Act of 2004, which currently requires district agencies with major contact with the public to provide interpretation and translation services to limited English proficient and non-English proficient populations under certain circumstances.
The bill, sponsored by Councilmember David Grosso (I-At-Large), was in large part in response to a report published by the Immigrant Justice Clinic of American University’s Washington College of Law, written in collaboration with the D.C. Language Access Coalition, of which Legal Aid is a member. The legislation addresses, among other things, the lack of enforcement of the current law, which was exposed in the “Access Denied” report, and detailed in the personal stories told by community members and their advocates who packed the D.C. Council’s hearing room last week in support of the bill.
Legal Aid’s testimony focused in particular on the vital importance of the bill’s addition of a private right of action, which we believe will fill gaps in enforcement under the current law. Now, if a person is a victim of a language access act violation, there is no explicit right to file a court action, get a court to order corrective actions, or get any monetary relief (such as compensation for lost wages or transportation costs incurred as a result of the violation). As a result, there is little to no incentive for D.C. residents to file complaints, and little to no incentive for agencies to comply with the Act, even if they have previously been found to be in violation of the Act. A private right of action changes this and brings the rights of aggrieved parties to the same level of others who are victims of other forms of discrimination under D.C.’s Human Rights Act. The bill, and in particular the private right of action, is an important step toward making language access a reality in the District of Columbia.
Elderly and Tenants with Disabilities Protection Amendment Act of 2015
On June 29, 2015, Legal Aid testified in support of the Elderly and Tenants with Disabilities Protection Amendment Act of 2015, a rent control bill that would fill holes in existing law and better protect tenants that are elderly or have a disability.
First, the amendment insulates elderly tenants and tenants with disabilities from all special petitions that can result in jarring rent increases. Currently, a landlord can increase the rent annually for a rent-controlled apartment occupied by an elderly tenant or tenant with a disability is by no more than the consumer price index (or “CPI”) up to five percent. However, a landlord can file a number of special petitions to drastically increase the rent much more than the CPI limit. Often, a landlord may seek to increase the rent 60-100% or more through these special petitions (e.g., hardship petition, services and facilities, substantial rehabilitation, voluntary agreement, etc.). Such petitions displace many seniors and tenants with disabilities, who cannot afford the much higher rents on their fixed incomes. The bill would exempt elderly tenants and tenants with disabilities from these special petitions, provided that the household income is $50,000 or less.
Second, the bill eases the burden of annual rent increases on elderly tenants and tenants with disabilities by reducing it to the least of CPI, Social Security cost of living adjustment, or five percent. This matters when the cost of living adjustment for a given year is less than CPI. For example, in 2011, the CPI was 2.2%, but there was no cost of living adjustment to Social Security, Social Security Disability income, or Supplemental Security Income that year. So a landlord could increase the rent by 2.2% for a rent-controlled apartment occupied by an elderly tenant or a tenant with a disability, but the tenant’s income from Social Security, SSDI, SSI would remain the same. As a result, affected tenants were forced to pay a higher percentage of their fixed income toward rent. Under the new legislation, the annual rent increase will not exceed the cost of living adjustment, and these tenants will be spared this addition burden.
Lastly, the rent control amendment makes it much easier for elderly tenants and tenants with disabilities to claim the exemption. Currently, to register for the exemption, elderly tenants and tenants with disabilities—who may already have mobility limitations—must take the form to their landlords and to the Department of Housing and Community Development in Anacostia at 1800 Martin Luther King, Jr., Ave SE. This bill allows tenants to establish the exemption upon presenting to their landlords the completed notice form with supporting documentation. Then the landlord is responsible for submitting the completed form to the DHCD.
These additional rent control protections would help enable low income elderly tenants and tenants with disabilities to remain in their current homes, and Legal Aid is hopeful that the D.C. Council will enact them into law.