DC Legal Aid Providers Revive Eviction Assistance Program

By Jack Rodgers | November 3, 2023, 2:55 PM EDT ·

Legal Aid D.C., several legal service providers and 19 law firms across Washington, D.C., are relaunching an eviction assistance program after efforts to remove residents from their homes more than doubled this year, and as a COVID-19-era eviction moratorium ends, the group announced Thursday.

Along with Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and other legal assistance groups like D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center and the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, firms like Hogan Lovells, DLA Piper and Jones Day have reached out to tenants who are facing eviction in the last week of November and in December.

Legal services providers have already been sending letters to one out of every six tenants with housing vouchers who have publicly available notices for evictions scheduled between November and December. From January of last year to January 2023, scheduled evictions in D.C. increased by 250%, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which carries out evictions ordered by D.C. Superior Court. 

In an interview with Law360 Pulse Friday, Vikram Swaruup, the executive director of Legal Aid D.C., said tenants who receive housing vouchers are particularly vulnerable while going through an eviction process. Those who are evicted are also at risk of losing their housing subsidies, with those vouchers being one of the few ways "that people can afford a safe, affordable place to live" in D.C., he said.

"The inflow of eviction cases that are coming into legal services providers right now is so high that there's at least one tenant to whom we sent a letter that has already reached out to us," Swaruup said.

The surge in evictions comes as a local eviction ban in D.C. comes to an end. U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich in D.C. vacated the nationwide freeze on evictions in May 2021. That ban expired at the end of July 2021, and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked the authority to issue a nationwide eviction moratorium.

In a July 2021 meeting, the D.C. Council extended the eviction ban in the district until January 2022, except in limited circumstances — such as if a tenant had committed acts of violence or damaged property. Landlords were also required to offer tenants a one-year repayment plan before filing for eviction, following that January 2022 period. 

With eviction moratoriums coming to a close, record rent increases, inflation and other factors, it was becoming harder for district residents to maintain their homes, Swaruup said, increasing the need for the Housing Right to Counsel Project to restart.

The program initially ran from 2016 to 2019, but with a nationwide moratorium on those cases during the pandemic, lawyers had no clients to service, so the program wound down. Between 2016 and 2019, more than 300 D.C. residents received assistance through the program, and those who sought help were 16 times more likely to challenge their evictions, according to a Thursday release.

"People had significant legal services needs during the pandemic but because of the eviction moratorium, this particular project didn't have cases to place with law firms, because the project focuses on eviction cases and most eviction cases were not permitted to go forward," Swaruup said. "And so there wasn't the same level of necessity for the project."

Other programs developed during the pandemic had helped make legal service providers more accessible, he said, like the Landlord Tenant Legal Assistance Network, a hotline created during the pandemic that the six legal service providers who staff the Housing Right to Counsel Project helped create to help expand legal aid service access, Swaruup said.

"And that number is on various court documents, and the court makes that number known to people against whom eviction cases are filed," Swaruup said. "So, because that number and the access to our services have become much easier over the course of the pandemic, we're seeing a much higher proportion of people against whom an eviction case has been filed reaching out to us as well."

Fewer than 15% of tenants at eviction hearings have legal representation, while 95% of landlords are normally represented, according to the release. Tens of thousands of low-income residents spend at least half of their total income on rent and local assistance is often inaccessible.

Low-income Black and brown residents make up most of those served, Swaruup said. About 81% of the tenants who request legal assistance in eviction cases are Black, he said and about 28% of those clients live in Ward 8, and 17% live in Ward 7.

"The vast majority of district residents that face an eviction case are Black or brown, and that is reflected in the record levels of displacement that we've seen of those communities," he said. "The affordable housing crisis in the district is significant. Accessing safe and affordable housing is getting harder and harder for district residents and that is just significantly more true for communities of color."

Local programs also create greater barriers for residents for assistance. In 2023, D.C. ran out of its $43 million emergency rental assistance funds in six months, and the wait list to apply for housing vouchers has been on pause since 2013, according to the release.

Right now, Legal Aid D.C. and its partners are reconnecting with D.C. firms and helping retrain attorneys on applicable laws and procedures, which have changed throughout the course of the pandemic, Swaruup said.

"Tenant protections have gotten stronger; the way the courts operate has changed because there's still a significant virtual component to how courts operate," he said.

Swaruup added that the D.C. Council's efforts to invest significant resources in access to justice issues and to ensure legal aid service providers were funded had helped expand the group's work.

"We're hoping that the partnership between the government sector, the nonprofit sector and the for-profit law firm sector, all of us can come together and collaborate and rally together to address this ongoing crisis that district residents are facing in terms of safe and affordable housing," Swaruup said.

Brian L. Schwalb, D.C.'s attorney general, said in a statement that evictions can have long-lasting effects on families, which he hopes the Housing Right to Counsel Project's relaunch will help mitigate.

"Every day, the Office of the Attorney General works to make sure tenants are safe in their homes and landlords live up to their legal obligations — but our work represents just one part of the comprehensive effort needed to address this crisis," he said in the release. "Relaunching the Housing Right to Counsel Project is an important step forward, and we are proud that through our pro bono program, we are joining the coalition of legal services and law firms that are part of this project."

The Housing Right to Counsel project also partners with the Neighborhood Legal Services Program and Rising for Justice. The program also partners with pro bono programs of the D.C. Attorney General's Office and the federal government.

The other firms assisting D.C. residents in the program include Alston & Bird LLP, ArentFox Schiff LLP, Arnold & Porter, Beveridge & Diamond PC, Blank Rome LLP, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, Covington & Burling LLP, Crowell & Moring LLP, Dechert LLP, Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, Jenner & Block LLP, Latham & Watkins LLP, Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Sidley Austin LLP, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP and Steptoe & Johnson LLP.

--Additional reporting by Khorri Atkinson. Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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