It’s been nearly a year since officers from the U.S. Marshals Service caused heated debate by dumping sensitive financial documents on a Capitol Hill sidewalk while carrying out an eviction order against a tax services company.
Local lawmakers contend that they’re still shaping legislation that would protect the property of ousted District tenants.
Some tenant advocates, including Angela Kennedy, a law professor and onetime public defender, said she appreciated the attention and energy spent on eviction protocol, but couldn’t ignore the circumstances surrounding a prevalent issue amid gentrification and what D.C. council members described as an affordable housing crisis.
“As long as I’ve been living here, this is what happens when people are all of a sudden interested. Kennedy said minutes before D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) commenced a hearing about the 2018 Eviction with Dignity Act, a law requiring landlords to keep tenants’ possessions in the vacant rental unit for up to 10 days after an eviction.
Kennedy, a supervising attorney at the Howard University School of Law Fair Housing Clinic in Northwest, listened as her colleague and others testified about ousted tenants who have had furniture thrown out on the curb, and the loss of birth certificates, family photos, computers, baby clothes and other prized possessions.
She said a storage period of 30 days would allow tenants ample time to secure new housing and transportation for materials left in their old dwelling.
“For people who’ve already suffered trauma, you’re not helping them get back on their feet,” said Kennedy, a lifelong D.C. resident and Howard University alumna. “People with children get first priority in rapid rehousing, but all the supplies you can’t replace without spending some money, someone might steal or ruin.”
A recent analysis by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute showed that families making less than $33,000 benefit from 30 percent of the affordable housing in the District, most of which has been developed east of Rock Creek Park. Discrimination against housing voucher holders further complicates matters, as outlined in the Equal Rights Center’s 2017 lawsuit against a property manager accused of not accepting subsidies.
Last year, the D.C. court system processed thousands of eviction cases, 40 percent of which had been resolved because the tenant paid the balance or vacated the property. However, more than one-third of the cases ended in landlords’ favor.
For years, tenants and landlords often didn’t receive a firm date on their eviction until a few days prior, when the eviction schedule appeared on the Landlord & Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Courts. On eviction day, U.S. Marshals supervised as the landlord’s crewmembers quickly comb through the apartment and threw belongings out on the curb.
In March, the Marshals Service announced policy changes, including evictions two weeks after the court issues a final judgment, and marshal supervision of nothing beyond changes to locks. Shortly after, local lawmakers drafted legislation parallel to USMC procedure to facilitate an eviction process mainly involving only tenants and landlords.
The specifics of that arrangement had yet been settled because of tenant concerns about access property and that of landlords in the unit’s longer turnaround time.
In July, the D.C. Council voted 11-2 in favor of the Eviction Reform Temporary Amendment Act of 2018, which requires landlords to give evicted tenants up to seven days to remove their belongings. This bill differed from a version unanimously passed in the latter part of the previous month that gave tenants 30 days.
Concerns about the cost burden on landlords compelled the shortening of the storage period.
“There were federal mandates that influenced us to move quicker and ensure residents facing the most trying times had some consideration,” said Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8), who co-introduced the bill with Bonds in May.
White, also a member of the council’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, said he and his colleagues explored the possibility of landlords storing tenants’ belongings in a public, government-owned storage unit, as has been done in other jurisdictions throughout the country.
“The whole idea is to find something that works and that colleagues can agree on for a compromise that works with other members,” White said. “It’s never sufficient because we’re helping people in dire need, but our goal is to have dignity and respect for people.”
In her testimony, Rachel Rintelmann, supervising attorney in the Housing Law Unit of the Legal Aid Society of D.C., described public storage units as a protective measure for evicted tenants.
Since the enactment of the temporary amendment, landlords have provided convoluted explanations of the law, Rintelmann told council members.
“A longer offsite storage period provides more security,” she said. “What happens at the conclusion of seven days is no less damaging. Landlords can still remove belongings without marshal supervision. Landlords can sell the tenants belongings and compensate themselves.”