This article was first published by Street Sense Media.
Outside the District’s one-room Landlord-Tenant Court, pages of pending eviction cases are taped to the wall, all waiting to be heard at 9 am. The clerk begins to take a 40-minute roll call, the courtroom packed with people anxiously waiting to hear their name.
This month, 378 evictions are scheduled to occur within the District, according to the Office of the Tenant Advocate. More than 4,000 evictions were carried out in the District in 2016. According to Eviction Lab, there were 12.4 evictions per day throughout the year.
The decisions made in the fast-pace of this branch of DC Superior Court leave a lasting mark on the future housing opportunities each tenant may seek. It is not illegal for a landlord to reject a prospective tenant solely because of an eviction history.
However, a bill re-introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh would change that.
The Eviction Record Sealing Authority Amendment Act of 2019 would create a framework for the sealing of eviction records that courts must follow. After three years, the act would mandate that all eviction records be sealed. Under current law, courts are not permitted to seal eviction records. While this step would not affect the overall rate of evictions in DC, it would help tenants move past its effect.
Six other councilmembers are co-sponsoring the bill, including Ward 6 representative Charles Allen, at-large representative Anita Bonds, Ward 4 representative Brandon Todd, Ward 1 representative Brianne Nadeau, and at-large representative Elissa Silverman.
Cheh says the bill represents a desire to provide second chances.
“You shouldn’t have this black mark on your back forever,” Cheh said in an interview with Street Sense Media. “I hope that people, if they do suffer an eviction, can get out from under that scarlet letter and be able to move forward with their lives without that hanging over their head.”
Landlords may evicta tenant for non-payment of rent, violating provisions of the lease, seeking to convert or demolish the rental unit, or performing an illegal act within the unit, according to the Office of the Tenant Advocate’s website.
It is illegal for a tenant to be evicted simply because the property is foreclosed upon or the initial lease expired.
Often times, people are evicted without being given notice because they are late on rent, according to Gabriela Lewis-White, managing attorney for the DC Bar Landlord Tenant Resource Center.
“Many leases in DC have that waiver that says if a tenant doesn’t pay rent, a landlord can immediately file an eviction action against them without providing them a 30-day notice,” Lewis-White said. “There’s no agency in that.”
Under Cheh’s proposal, the 30-day notice would be required and could no longer be waived. As a result, many tenants will be able to handle the situation before it even reaches a courtroom.
Many evictions are mistakenly filed and quickly resolved. But, the effect can still be felt. When landlords conduct a background check on a prospective tenant, every case – won, lost, or dismissed – will appear in the results.
For example, landlords of large buildings file mass-eviction notices that result in many dismissals or mistakes. Many cases get dismissed during roll call at an initial hearing, yet still remain on each person’s file, according to Amber Harding, attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
“Particularly with large landlords, they do mass filings that may include the wrong unit, or just didn’t process somebody’s payment before the information got sent out,” Harding said. “By the time the court date comes, the person doesn’t owe any money, there’s no case against them, and they get dismissed. Those cases stay on people’s records.”
On July 1, property management company Habitat America filed 20 cases against The Summit at St. Martins apartment complex.
Of those 20 cases, 11 were dismissed at roll call. Seven cases were processed as a default plea, meaning that an immediate decision for eviction is processed as the defendant did not show up to the hearing. Two cases were settled, and only one advanced to trial.
For Miracle Cross, a Summit tenant, July 1 marked her fourth time in Landlord-Tenant Court. Since 2014, Cross found herself re-entering the court for issues of administrative errors, a change in the recertification process, and non-payment. The court visits seemed inevitable, says Cross.
“From then on, it kind of made me be aware that you can do all the right things in DC and still be snagged in the system,” Cross said. “That’s how I’ve been in Landlord and Tenant court ever since then, I’ve been in the same place, keeping the same routine.”
In some cases, tenants have not even realized they had a case filed against them, according to Leigh Higgins, attorney at the DC Tenants’ Rights Center.
“We’ve had cases where someone didn’t realize the case had happened at all,” Higgins said. “Maybe something was filed and dismissed right away, and they didn’t realize until they were trying to rent again later, and they were denied or it showed on a screening.”
As current law does not prohibit discrimination based on eviction history, any case on file will often negatively affect the tenant, according to Cheh.
“This has had a really dramatic effect on potential tenants,” Cheh said. “Both in terms of making it more difficult for them to find an apartment, but also even if they get one, sometimes the landlord will charge them more money.”
Cheh’s bill would prohibit housing discrimination on account of eviction. Even if the landlord is aware of a potential tenant’s sealed case, they are not allowed to use that against the prospective lease.
Currently, the law only prohibitsdiscrimination based upon race, gender, disability, marital and family status, political affiliation, age, and sexual orientation.
The new bill would allow many people experiencing homelessness to access housing without unfair discrimination as a result, says Harding.
“I think it will expand access to housing,” Harding said. “Particularly my clients, who many are homeless and have been homeless because they have lost their housing or they weren’t able to pay rent. We’re finding many, many landlords are denying our clients either for poor credit, or they don’t take vouchers, or because of these eviction records.”
The Eviction Record Sealing Authority Amendment Act of 2019 is only the latest piece of legislation the Council has considered that aims to reform the effects of eviction. In the fall, the Council considered three bills that addressed the accessibility of resources to tenants facing eviction, damages landlords may face, and the storage of a tenant’s belongings.
Of those, the Eviction Prevention Act of 2017 did not move past a public hearing and the Housing Conversion and Eviction Clarification Amendment Act was re-introduced in 2019 and is under Council review. The Eviction with Dignity Amendment Act, however, went into effect in March 2019.