A front page, top-of-the-fold article in today’s Washington Post examines the intersection between eviction, gentrification, and poverty. Post reporter Terrence McCoy examined hundreds of eviction records over two years at Brookland Manor, a subsidized housing property in Northeast DC undergoing redevelopment. His findings suggest that the owner of the property used eviction as a tool to empty units.
During the period after the owner proposed redevelopment that would require relocating existing tenants—a potentially costly process—eviction suits increased, particularly those alleging that tenants owed very small amounts of money under $100 or committed minor lease violations. As Legal Aid Supervising Attorney Beth Harrison observed in the article, “A mother of two on [TANF] may receive as little as $154 per month in cash income.” Falling behind a little in rent is not uncommon, therefore, as the Post notes: “That money has to pay for rent, transportation and any necessities that food stamps don’t cover. When an unforeseen expense arises, the poor rarely have friends and family from whom they can borrow money.” One tenant in Brookland Manor faced eviction not for unpaid rent but for alleged “criminal activity” based on a tragic incident in which her teenage son committed suicide with a handgun.
While these examples are particularly egregious, they are not surprising to those of us who represent tenants in the District facing eviction and other forms of displacement. Far too many tenants are threatened with eviction, large rent increases, poor housing conditions, and other forms of harassment when it appears the owner simply wants a tenant to leave, whether to make room for redevelopment or for a tenant who will pay more. As rents across the District skyrocket, long-term residents with limited incomes increasingly face these pressures.
Legal Aid’s Housing Unit represents individual tenants, works with tenant associations, and advocates for systemic reform to fight these trends. We are one of many organizations taking case referrals for tenants facing eviction at Brookland Manor. This work ties into our Housing Right to Counsel Project, which focuses on increasing access to counsel for tenants facing eviction from subsidized housing. Our Court-Based Legal Service Project locates attorneys in Landlord Tenant Court ever day to provide representation (highlighted in the Post article, which describes one instance where our project partner, Bread for the City, provides critical same-day representation to a tenant facing immediate eviction). And we recently won a new Community Redevelopment Grant from the DC Bar Foundation to partner with Bread for the City to represent groups of tenants facing displacement linked to redevelopment.
Through these efforts and many more, we are making justice real every day for tenants like those that Terrence McCoy writes about so poignantly.