In 2018, the firm represented 79 tenants in conjunction with Prudential, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, the Legal Aid Society of D.C., and the Children’s Law Center. Forty-nine of these clients had their eviction actions dismissed outright or settled on terms that allowed them to remain in their homes. Another 18 decided to leave, often because the conditions in their apartments were intolerable, but they left with more time, more money, or both. In four cases, our teams are still fighting to get landlords to repair unlivable conditions. Only eight of our clients were evicted. This extraordinary success rate is proof of the importance of counsel in housing court, where the overwhelming majority of tenants still face eviction without a lawyer. As further proof of the difference a lawyer can make, one of our D.C. teams won a $20,000 judgment for a tenant who agreed to vacate an apartment that had multiple housing code violations.
We first met “Maya Montoya” in October 2016, when she came to a pro bono tenancy clinic the firm helps run. She and her two daughters were living in a substandard building where rain and snow came through the roof and flooded their apartment, ruining the family’s sparse furniture and clothing. The leaks were so constant that parts of the ceiling and walls were falling in. Mice and insects infested the building, and localized extermination efforts proved useless given that cracks and holes in the structure allowed pests in through the walls. The apartment also had only intermittent heat, and even when the heat was on, the rooms were often freezing because the walls and windows were not properly sealed.
The landlord had sued Ms. Montoya for nonpayment of rent, seeking to evict the family. We went to court with Ms. Montoya and reached a settlement under which she paid back rent in return for the landlord’s promise to make all necessary repairs within a month. We also put the landlord on written notice that Ms. Montoya would withhold rent beginning the following month if the repairs were not completed.
The following month came and went with no repairs to the building, other than the installation of inadequate baseboard heaters in some of the rooms. Ms. Montoya began to pay her rent into the firm’s trust account rather than to her landlord. She also began looking for another apartment but found little safe and decent housing within her price range. Ultimately, it took 15 months before the family secured a better place to live.
After the family moved out, the landlord sued Ms. Montoya for all the withheld rent. The firm represented her in defending against this action. We prepared for trial, including by subpoenaing a witness from the state bureau of housing inspection, which had documented 66 code violations in the three-unit building. In addition to citing the conditions Ms. Montoya had identified, inspectors found dozens of unauthorized and potentially explosive propane tanks stored on the premises. The inspector we spoke to was prepared to testify that he had rarely seen a more dangerous residential building.
On the eve of trial, however, the parties agreed to a settlement, with the landlord accepting a two-thirds abatement of the rent to reflect the unlivable conditions Ms. Montoya and her girls had endured. Not only did this victory save the family enough money to improve their prospects for better housing, but it also alerted state and city inspectors to the dangers facing other tenants in the building, where enforcement actions are ongoing.