Last week, Chief Judge Lee Satterfield issued an Administrative Order establishing a docket in the Civil Division of the Superior Court to hear claims by tenants about housing code violations. This special docket will have simple and expedited procedures designed for unrepresented litigants. It is designed to address code violations only, with rent abatement and collection issues to be addressed in other proceedings. We applaud Judge Satterfield for this initiative and are very grateful to Judges Melvin Wright and Stephanie Duncan-Peters for the many hours they spent developing the program.
The impact of this docket is expected to be substantial. More than 63,000 civil cases are filed each year in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. More than two-thirds of those cases -- in excess of 44,000 actions -- are in the Landlord and Tenant Branch. The Branch is a “landlord’s court.” Tenants cannot initiate litigation.
As a result, if a landlord seeks to evict a tenant, she or he need only complete a simple form and pay a small fee to bring a case. By contrast, up until last week, a tenant who sought to enforce a landlord’s obligation under the housing code to maintain habitable premises had a much different experience. She or he was required to file it in the civil division, pay a much higher fee, and contend with significantly more complex rules concerning the entry of injunctive relief. These barriers were so high as to be wholly ineffective for all but a small number of tenants.
There is a crisis in decent affordable housing in the District. Many low-income tenants are forced to live in decrepit and poorly maintained buildings with very little recourse. The District’s code enforcement process is broken. The lack of a remedy gave landlords a free hand to ignore maintenance for the most vulnerable tenants. The Housing Conditions Docket will be an important tool for tenants and their advocates to protect their rights.