Committee Executive Director Jonathan Smith Testifies in Support of Bill 21-0879, the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016

Testimony of Jonathan M. Smith, Executive Director
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Before the Committee on the Judiciary of the Council of the District of Columbia
Concerning Bill 21-0879, the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs is pleased to support the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016.[1] The bill, if enacted and funded, will provide critically needed legal assistance to working[2] and low-income tenants in the District of Columbia. Other witnesses have and will provided compelling testimony on the crisis in civil legal assistance that leaves far too many individuals and families who need a lawyer without access to counsel. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee concurs in that testimony and rather than repeat it, I would like to focus on the ways in which residential development patterns have resulted in economic and racial segregation in the District and how access to counsel can make a difference in ensuring that we maintain and grow integrated and healthy communities.

The District is Becoming Further Segregated on Racial and Economic Lines

District residents who live in mixed income neighborhoods express a higher level of satisfaction in their community and believe that their neighborhoods are a better place to live than communities that are less diverse.[3] Yet, the District has become the sixth most segregated city in the Nation.[4] This was not always the case. While there has been, historically, large swaths of the city that were racially segregated, from 1980 to 2000, the integration of the City was increasing.[5] Mayor William’s decision to bring in 100,000 high income new residents drove economic development policy that transformed neighborhoods. That transformation, however, drove out existing neighborhood residents – mostly people of color – and the amenities that were developed were made available to new residents – mostly white.

Rapidly rising housing costs and stagnant wages have seriously impacted the ability of working and low income families and individuals to find affordable housing. The Since 2002, rent for the bottom two quintiles of District renters rose by 14% and 35%, respectively, while their incomes remained stagnant.[6] Additionally, the number of affordably priced apartments in the District has rapidly decreased in the last decade. The District has lost nearly half of its affordable apartments. Between 2002 and 2013 the number of apartments renting for $800 a month – a rate that is affordable for a household earning $32,000 a year – declined by 27,000 while the number of units renting for more than $1,600 – rents affordable for households earning greater than $64,000 annually – increased by nearly 37,000.[7]

Further exacerbating the affordable housing crisis in D.C., subsidies for 15,226 affordable units are expiring on or before 2020.[8] Many of the subsidized units are at risk of being lost through redevelopment to market-rate non-affordable units.[9] The forces of segregation are particularly acute on working and low-income families. Currently only 21% of housing units in Washington are three bedrooms, 8% are four bedrooms, and 4% are five or more bedrooms.[10] Wards 7 and 8 are home to some of the only affordable four- and five- bedroom apartments in the D.C. area.[11]

Displacement also interferes with economic opportunity.[12] Workers who are forced out of neighborhoods with access to transportation or near a metro stop to a more remote corner of the City, have a harder and more costly time getting to work. Low-wage work can often have unpredictable hours and reliable and efficient transportation is essential. Access to opportunities for employment is among the most effective strategy to lift families out of poverty and to create opportunity for social mobility.

The kind of development pressures that pushed people of color out of Columbia Heights, Chinatown, the area around the ballpark, U Street, N.W, much of Capital Hill and elsewhere are taking hold in Brookland, Petworth, Shaw, near the campus of Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital and a dozen other neighborhoods. Rather than push out old residents for new, transformation can and must be achieved for both. These neighborhoods need, want and deserve the amenities and services that development brings. Old and new residents should be accommodated together and those that have been part of the community through lean times should share in the benefits of investments in a neighborhood.

The Landlord and Tenant Court is the Mechanism to Achieve Displacement

The Landlord and Tenant Branch of the District of Columbia Superior Court is often the mechanism that creates displacement through which development and segregation is achieved. Landlords and developers use the housing laws to clear buildings, eliminate the right of tenants to purchase or otherwise protect their right to stay. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is engaged in litigation to help preserve affordable family sized housing in the Brookland Manor complex. In the wake of the announcement of the redevelopment project, Brookland Manor began to pursue a campaign to haul tenants into the Landlord and Tenant Branch and seek their eviction on the most minor lease violation and small rent arrearages – arrearages as small as $25.[13] This pattern, well known to tenant organizers and legal services lawyers, is repeated across the District. Hundreds of buildings are cleared out using orders of possession from the Superior Court and once removed, tenants lose critical rights and often are forced to move to more highly racially and economically segregated parts of the District or are forced out of the District altogether.

Lawyers stand as a bulwark against displacement. Many of the tenants who appear in the Landlord and Tenant Branch have defenses or affirmative claims. Despite important reforms that the Superior Court has undertaken in recent years, tenants are at a significant procedural disadvantage. The laws are complex and technical, the rules of procedure confusing and the language of the law foreign to most. Where a lawyer is available to assist, the outcome can often be different.

Anti-Discrimination Laws Should be added to Covered Activities

Given that displacement is not only a critical issue for individuals, but for the fabric of the community as a whole, it is important to ensure access to counsel beyond the limited confines of individual cases involving individual tenancies. Representations on behalf of groups of tenants that preserve their rights are essential. The draft legislation permits some group representation, but on a limited number of claims. We urge that the statute be expanded to include, as a covered proceeding, claims of discrimination under the District’s Human Rights Act and the federal Fair Housing Act. Legal services lawyers should have access to all available remedies to ensure that individuals and families have an opportunity to live in communities that are integrated along the lines of race and class.


[1] The Washington Lawyers’ Committee was founded in 1968 to address civil rights violations, racial injustice and poverty-related issues in our community through litigation and other advocacy. The Committee has a long history of working to address housing discrimination. We work closely with the private bar to bring litigation and pursue policy initiatives.

[2] Nearly one-fourth of District residents live in poverty and more than one-half of poor families have one working adult. Nearly a third of poor families have at least one adult working full-time. Jenny Reed, Who is Low Income in DC, A D.C. Fiscal Policy Report, (2010), Available at:

[3] Michael Bader, Diversity in the D.C. Area: Findings from the 2016 D.C. Area Survey, American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (October 2016) Available at:

[4] Nate Silver, The Most Diverse Cities are Often the Most Segregated, (May 1, 2015). Available at:

[5] Noah Sawyer and Peter Tatain, Segregation Patterns in the District of Columbia: 1980 to 2000, Urban Institute (October 2003).Available at:

[6] Wes Rivers, Going, Going, Gone: DC’s Vanishing Affordable Housing, A DC Fiscal Policy Report (March 12, 2015) at pages 2-3.

[7] Id. at 4.

[8] See Affordable Housing Needs Assessment.

[9] U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Summary File 3. Issued 2001. Available at; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Issued 2015. Available at

[10] Id. At 2.

[11] Id. at 18-19.

[12] Urban Institute, Maintaining Economic Diversity and Affordability: A strategy for Preservation of Affordable Rental Housing in the District of Columbia (Dec. 2014); Available at

[13] Terrence McCoy, As the Nation’s Capital Booms, Poor Tenants Face Eviction over as Little as $25., Washington Post, (August 8, 2016). Available at:

Related Content