The Community Lawyering Project partners with organizers for affordable housing
Many people in Washington D.C. are still struggling to find a consistent income to pay their rent and people still need assistance because of the pandemic. Last month, Bread for the City attorney, Jack Meaney the Festival of Tenants, a community event held by the Cancel Rent Coalition in D.C., where there were informational booths, community activities, and resources for tenants. The event was held in Ward 5 to target Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie, who has not yet pledged his support for the coalition’s demands.
Since October 2020, an estimated 34,000 tenants are behind on their rent according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. This is mainly Black DC residents, coupled with the immigrant and the working-class family’s population.
Bread for the City’s Community Lawyering Project first started working with DC’s Cancel Rent Coalition in May of 2020, during the pandemic’s initial lock down, when tenant organizers in D.C. realized that renters will have a significant amount of rent debt that will be unpaid. This group decided that the only comprehensive way to solve this problem is for the D.C. government to cancel rent for tenants. This would include a freeze on rent for at least two years and a ban on evictions due to unpaid rent during the pandemic. The Community Lawyering Project is assisting the Cancel Rent Coalition by helping them understand certain systems and laws to help them achieve their organizing goal.
“There is a tremendous power imbalance between moneyed landlords and low-income tenants, and it plays out every day in landlord-tenant court where landlords are represented by attorneys against unrepresented tenants,” said Jack Meaney, Bread for the City Housing Attorney. “One part of the Community Lawyering Project is trying to even out that power imbalance by giving tenants knowledge about their rights and access to the legal tools that they can use to enforce their rights.”
The Community Lawyering Project at Bread for the City is a part of the housing practice in the Legal Clinic. This team works to support communities of tenants who are already organizing to achieve a common goal related to affordable and safe housing for tenants in D.C. Unlike traditional legal aid services, which is often limited to individual representation in a court case, the Community Lawyering Project has the flexibility to work with groups of tenants and use less common tactics like rent petitions, Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) negotiations, and (in the example of Cancel Rent) policy advocacy to meet client goals.
Managing Attorney, Rebecca Lindhurst, played an integral role in starting Community Lawyering at Bread for the City in 2007. There was a need to do more community organizing and partnerships. The legal system is designed to oppress the low-income community and Community Lawyers were needed to take a proactive approach. That approach is educating tenants about their rights, advocating, and organizing to break the system that tenants fight against every day.
“Rent is unaffordable and landlords have a lot of power. The idea was to dedicate some resources at Bread for the City to partner with housing organizers and tenants who were really trying to change this landscape. We want to support projects that are organized to give more power to tenants” said Amy Gellatly, Managing Attorney at Bread for the City.
Historically, Community Lawyering has partnered with Tenant Associations in DC to help tenants take advantage of TOPA. Under this DC law, when property owners want to sell their building, they first have to offer the tenants the opportunity to buy it. Most likely, tenants are unable to purchase the property themselves, but TOPA allows tenants to assign their rights to another purchaser and this allows them to survey developers who might be interested in buying. Through this process, tenants can select the developer who will deliver what the tenants need: such as repairs and commitments to affordable rent.. This process can be very technical and it’s an example of why it’s important to have Community Lawyering to help with the technical assistance. The tenants are able to accomplish their goal by making sure repairs are made and getting guarantees that their rent won’t be increased.
The Community Lawyer Project is about listening to the community and finding ways to better serve them for affordable housing. It’s about achieving solutions to problems tenants face each day by developing leaders and coalitions that can make systemic change.