How D.C.’s AG Racine Tackles Issues of Housing and Homelessness
By August 19, 2021 0 1066•
What should be done about the crisis of housing and homelessness in the District? While many hold theories, the District’s Attorney General, Karl A. Racine wields powerful tools to address matters directly.
With a team of nearly 700 lawyers and staff in 12 offices and divisions, Racine’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is charged statutorily with serving the “public interest” of the nation’s capital and Racine himself is committed to “applying the law creatively” on behalf of D.C. residents at risk of losing housing. The Georgetowner spoke with AG Racine recently to discuss his outlook, efforts and initiatives.
In 2015, District voters elected Racine to become the city’s first elected Attorney General — unlike most AGs around the country who are appointed. He’s now serving in his second 4-year term, having been reelected in 2018.
Since his election, Racine has gained national prominence not only through the OAG’s multiple lawsuits against Trump organizations and his recent decision to require Covid vaccines for his workforce, but by his work as president of the bi-partisan National Association of Attorneys General. Previously, he served as an Associate White House Counsel in the Clinton administration. He was also the first African-American managing partner of a top-100 American law firm, Venable LLP, and served for many years as an attorney for the D.C. Public Defender Service.
Racine’s profile on the OAG’s website, outlines his public service roots. “Born in Haiti, Attorney General Racine came to the District at the age of three,” the bio reads. He “attended D.C. public schools, including Murch Elementary, Deal Junior High, and Wilson High, and graduated from St. John’s College High School. He earned a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was captain of the basketball team, and a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, where he volunteered in a legal clinic supporting the rights of migrant farm workers. His commitment to equal justice was inspired by his parents, who fled authoritarian rule in Haiti to start a better life in the United States, and by the lawyers of the Civil Rights Movement, who used the law to make positive social change.”
Upon reelection in 2018, Racine posted on his profile his particular commitment to ensuring housing stability and economic security for D.C. residents. He said he was “honored to serve again” and would “use the next four years to expand work on priorities, including preserving affordable housing, employing evidence-based juvenile justice reforms, cracking down on slumlords, holding unscrupulous employers accountable for wage-theft, and protecting consumers from scams and abusive business practices.”
While the mandate of the OAG is to defend the District in lawsuits and provide legal advice to the Mayor, city agencies, and the D.C. council, the OAG’s “public interest” objective gives Racine leeway to address a range of complex issues that contribute to the problem of homelessness in the District — from abusive landlords, to crime, to juvenile justice to fraudulent or illegal practices that put residents at risk of losing their homes. “We’re able to use the law in the public interest and that’s where we really focus our efforts when it comes to issues related to housing,” Racine told The Georgetowner.
One of the principal pipelines into homelessness, Racine argues, involves abusive landlords finding ways to force tenants out so they can upscale their properties and demand higher rents. “Unfortunately, there still remain slumlords in the District of Columbia,” Racine said, “and many of [them] have a business model where they literally purchase a building that has paying tenants or tenants who have paid via a [housing] subsidy and the long-term goal of these slumlords is to get those tenants out so that the properties can either be renovated or redeveloped and attract a whole new type of tenant that can pay higher rates.”
So, AG Racine dispatches OAG lawyers to the scene. “Our lawyers go in and we hold those landlords, owners or management companies accountable for not providing a safe, inhabitable place to tenants who in some form or fashion are paying for that service,” he said. “Essential to that business model is not providing services for the existing tenants. So tenants are forced to live with leaky roofs, leaky basements, mold, all kinds of vermin, and other unsafe and uninhabitable conditions.”
With the enactment of consumer protections during the pandemic and the passage of the Consumer Protection Act, Racine’s legal teams are allowed to file suits on a case-by-case basis rather than litigating the slumlords’ range of “patterns and practices.” Facing possible eviction, concerned tenants have been contacting his office directly. “We are active in the community and the community has, thankfully, kind of taken to our office. So, they shared their concerns with us. And, at the top of the list are problems around housing. Sure enough, when we see those issues, we go in with investigators and see exactly what those tenants are facing. So, we’ve been relentless in bringing lawsuits against slumlords.”
The results have been positive in many cases, Racine said. “That is one way we have played a big role, I think, in the housing [situation] generally…. Our lawsuits have resulted in orders or agreements in which the landlords, owners, and management companies will rehabilitate the property, make it safe and make it habitable and we’ve also been able to use our consumer protection statute to get restitution, money in the hands of the tenants who were the victims.”
The pipeline of evicted residents to the ranks of the unhoused in the District is very clear to AG Racine. “If you look at it,” he said, “tenants who can move [do] move, and those who cannot have to leave when it becomes too dangerous for themselves and their families. There are lots of kids and seniors who end up living, in our experience, in the buildings we bring suit against. And, what we’re doing is standing up for them and their decency and humanity.”
So, AG Racine has fought hard to uphold federal and local eviction moratoria during the pandemic and his OAG has prioritized battling landlords’ discrimination against renters based on their sources of rental income. “Under D.C. law, it’s illegal for landlords and management companies to discriminate on the basis of the source of one’s income,” Racine said. “You can’t discriminate against voucher holders. So, that of course plays a significant role in stemming the tide of homelessness.”
Proud of the OAG’s successful defense of D.C.’s moratorium on evictions in D.C. courts during the pandemic, Racine has doubled-down on keeping tenants in place as new Covid variants have emerged in the District. “Our consumer protection office as well as our lawyers who work in the housing space are totally deployed to make sure that folks have complied with the moratorium on evictions,” Racine said. “It was great to be able to defend the moratorium so that people could stay in their homes.”
The OAG’s office is fully deployed to assist District residents with the often cumbersome bureaucratic processes involved in securing housing assistance, AG Racine said. “We’re working double-time to help D.C. residents complete the laborious process of complying with the Stay DC program that provides financial support for folks who are having trouble making rental payments. As you know, there’s a lot of money the federal government has put out there [to assist tenants] and that money has an expiration date in September, so it’s all-hands-on-deck — a volunteer effort on the part of OAG, lawyers and non-lawyers, to help people literally complete the forms. And we’re happy to do that.”
Another pipeline to homelessness AG Racine has observed involves young residents with unstable family housing, caught up in cycles of economic dislocation and the criminal justice system. “We see a lot of young people [coming in] through different doors,” Racine said. “One is the juvenile justice door where a young person is accused of a crime. And, then we see young people come in through the abuse-and-neglect door…. What we have found in regard to both… is that housing is a very significant issue young people and their families are struggling with. Oftentimes, kids coming into the juvenile system as well as the abuse-and-neglect system have been kids who have cycled in and out of housing instability.”
To provide more stability to young residents at risk of entanglement in the criminal justice system, AG Racine has set up a restorative justice program within the OAG — the first in the nation to be established within the chief prosecutor’s office. The restorative justice model offers voluntary conflict resolution between victims and accused offenders based on an airing of harms to the victim and the community with the goal of preventing recidivism by offenders and restoring social harmony.
So far the statistical results of the program have been impressive, according to AG Racine. Both victims and offenders recommend restorative justice for others at rates above 95 percent. And as recidivism drops communities stabilize. From 2016 to 2020, the OAG’s office recorded a recidivism drop of 15% for “youth who undergo restorative justice” (Natalie Delgadillo, DCist.) “What we’ve found is, especially for juveniles, there’s a different level of accountability and recognition of the harm they caused just by virtue of having to listen to how they hurt the victim…. We believe that we’re building a case that the data supports lower recidivism.” Racine said.
When asked about the recent rise of tent encampments in Georgetown and around the District, AG Racine acknowledged the legal barriers to their quick removal. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have sued the District on behalf of the rights of the unhoused to not be relocated against their will and have their property seized without due process.
“The city obviously has a view that its residents would prefer a more orderly approach to housing those who don’t have homes rather than congregating in different areas with tents and the like. And the city uses its authority to move those facilities,” Racine said. Whether or not the OAG is consulted on the process, however, it is bound to defend the city if a lawsuit is brought.
However, Racine argued, you have to strike a balance between the city’s power to ensure safe and orderly public spaces and the legal rights of unhoused residents. “I do think it’s important for us to respect the property rights of people who are homeless to the extent that those temporary shelters are taken down or anything of that sort. Folks should have the ability to go back and get their property,” he said.
“To be honest, however, I favor a world, if you will, where there is available housing and shelter for everyone. I get where the ACLU is coming from with the notion of a right to be outside. But it’s my experience that for the overwhelming majority of people who find themselves in a homeless situation, there are other issues at play. There’s instability, there could be economic duress, certainly there are mental health needs, and my philosophy is to try to help and treat those, but not in a criminal way,” he said.
On the whole, the Attorney General is proud of the OAG’s work on behalf of housing stability for D.C.’s marginalized populations. “We use the law in a way that helps D.C.’s most vulnerable residents. We focus on people who are struggling with affordable housing issues. We focus on workers who may not be getting paid a fair wage or wage-theft and we are innovative when it comes to criminal justice system matters and the treatment of kids. So, I think people respect where we’re coming from.”