Tenant Advocacy Is Good for D.C.

Can you think of anything worse than being kicked out of your home? Not having a roof over your head? Maybe, if you have legions of generous friends who would rescue you for a few days and nights. But how long would that last?

Would a member of your extended family take you in and make you part of the family once again, at least for a while? Maybe your car could be your place of shelter. (But what about showering?)

No car, no friends, you are discarded and left on the street — alone.

In 2015, 1,567 evictions took place in our city; 1,335 were for non-payment of rent.

Two District Council members have taken the lead in giving renters an advocate in landlord-tenant court. Last year, Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie started the discussion, held hearings and began to build the case for tenants’ right-to-counsel.

The landlords don’t seem to need this service. They were represented by counsel 97 percent of the time. McDuffie says: “Without attorneys, tenants can miss important deadlines, misunderstand documents and procedures and make harmful decisions without being fully informed of their rights — and, in some instances, lose the case even when the eviction being sought is without merit.”

On May 30, Charles Allen of Ward 6 made sure this idea became law. Allen spoke of how tenants are “thrust into a courtroom, in foreign territory.” He continued: “Their credit is ruined. … They are put into the homeless system.” According to Allen, the new law will create a level playing field so that a settlement can be reached without people losing their home.

The new program will be funded with $4.2 million of D.C. government funds. Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh helped locate a substantial portion of that funding.

I have no doubt that this D.C. law will produce meaningful results. In New York City, a similar law has led to a 24-percent decline in evictions. Beth Harrison, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, summed it up best: “Tenants are receiving unjust outcomes because they don’t have a lawyer by their side.”

This program will not represent everyone. Nevertheless, Allen said, “It is a massive first step.” Most of all, it shows that Washington, D.C., is committing to an admirable principle: fairness for all.

Political analyst and Georgetowner columnist Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a contributor to thehill.com. Reach him at markplotkindc@gmail.com.

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