If you’re facing eviction in D.C., there’s just one number you need to call for help: 202-780-2575. It’s an eviction prevention hotline and the attorneys who staff it stopped 70% of evictions sought by landlords from September 2021 to March 2022.
Operations began in June 2020, when six legal service organizations created the Landlord-Tenant Legal Assistance Network (LTLAN) to provide free representation to low-income D.C. residents. Unlike in criminal matters, people involved in a civil eviction case are not entitled by law to a free attorney. Nationwide, fewer than one-half of tenants are able to stay in their homes when they don’t have legal representation.
Two years in, network attorneys have fielded over 3,000 calls from clients and helped almost all of them. Community outreach workers from another half-dozen organizations are knocking on the doors of every person with a scheduled eviction in D.C. to speak to them and leaving them fliers about the hotline.
Despite LTLAN’s high success rate, its reach is not universal. The program, funded in part by the D.C. government, only provides legal help to tenants who earn up to 300% of the federal poverty level — about $40,000 for an individual or $83,000 for a family of four. Tenants who qualify for LTLAN sometimes reach out too late, or have balances so high that available rental assistance isn’t enough, said Gabriella Lewis-White, associate director of housing at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center.
In other cases, people are reluctant to reach out, skeptical that a phone number could really help them, said Kim Lehmkuhl, a canvasser for LTLAN. Tenants facing eviction may have negative experiences working with city programs and nonprofits where their calls have gone unanswered.
In such situations, “it’s hard to believe the flier means anything,” she said. And no phone number can fix what tenants say is the biggest source of their problems: the lack of affordable housing. Options in the District are especially scarce for people with extremely low incomes.
But as more evictions are filed each month in D.C., the demand for legal representation is steadily increasing. LTLAN reports that it is receiving nearly twice as many calls as it did last year. In late July, the city surpassed 300 weekly eviction filings for the first time since 2020.
“Everyone who was waiting for the flood of eviction cases? It arrived,” said Lori Leibowitz, managing attorney for housing at Neighborhood Legal Services Program.
Why having a lawyer matters
Across the nation, having access to a lawyer is a major determining factor in whether a tenant wins their eviction case. But for low-income residents who are already struggling to get by, hiring one is often out of the question. In 2017, 90% of landlords in D.C. came to court with a lawyer compared to just 10% of tenants.
“We’re trying to close that gap — we’re trying to make it a level playing field, a fairer fight,” said Sunny Desai, managing attorney of Legal Counsel for the Elderly’s Tenant Advocacy and Support Practice.
LTLAN does that in two ways, attorneys said: making sure people know about the opportunity for free legal assistance, and connecting them to aid quickly.
If you are facing an eviction case or are worried you will in the future, you can call LTLAN on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you’re over 60, the case will be flagged for Legal Counsel for the Elderly. Otherwise, an attorney from one of the other five participating organizations — D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, Bread for the City, Rising for Justice, and Legal Aid Society of D.C. — will reach out to you. If you’re eligible, you’ll at least get advice, Leibowitz said, with full representation available to those who need it.
A single phone number for separate organizations — a rarity in the legal services industry — greatly reduces the burden on clients, who don’t have to call multiple lines or shop their case around. Attorneys, meanwhile, are able to prioritize cases in which eviction is imminent.
That’s what happened when a client recently contacted LTLAN close to 5 p.m. with an eviction scheduled the following day, according to Lewis-White. The Pro Bono Center was able to obtain an emergency hearing at 9 a.m. to delay the eviction, and the tenant ended up with time to pay off their rent with money from the District’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).
Rental assistance — much of which is still available, despite the end of the federally funded STAY DC program — can be a game-changer. Lark, a mother of two who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, said she continued paying her rent as long as she could after losing her job in 2020. But she eventually owed her landlord over $15,000. Faced with the threat of an eviction, Lark learned that the United Planning Organization was offering rental assistance.
“I had myself worried all the time about what was going on, but finally the paperwork went through,” Lark said. “I had one small sigh of relief.”
ERAP and other social supports are an important piece of LTLAN’s eviction prevention plan. While lawyers can delay evictions, they can only do so much to help people find additional sources of income, Leibowitz pointed out.
That’s why LTLAN attorneys may refer you to programs that can help you find more money to pay rent. This can mean applying for benefits, preventing wage theft or getting favorable rates on loans. Six tenant empowerment specialists hired to guide clients through this process have personal experience with the D.C. social services system.
“If our tenant empowerment specialists can work with folks to change something about their lives that makes them more able to be stable in their housing, that’s where the real change and the real eviction diversion and prevention happens,” Leibowitz said.
The eviction process
Landlords in D.C. are required by law to give tenants a 30-day notice before they file an eviction case. If the tenant and landlord can come to a resolution during this time, no case is filed and the eviction stays off the tenant’s record. Agreements may include the establishment of a new rent payment plan or a commitment to address lease violations.
After 30 days a landlord can file to evict a tenant if they fail to reach an agreement. Then, the Landlord-Tenant Court schedules a virtual hearing within six weeks from the date of the filing. When the court allows tenants to stay, it is commonly through one of three resolutions: Both parties come to an agreement; the landlord requests dismissal because the tenant fixed the problem, or the court rules in favor of the tenant.
When tenants leave, it’s generally because they have abandoned the unit or agreed during the proceedings to move out, or the court rules in favor of the landlord.
Even if the court initially rules in favor of the landlord, a tenant with legal representation may be able to continue to reside in their home. In September 2021, the expiration of the District’s moratorium on evictions during the public health emergency meant that the U.S. Marshals Service began evicting people with pre-pandemic judgments. With last-minute legal arguments and the broad availability of federally supported rental assistance, LTLAN stopped two-thirds of those evictions, said Beth Mellen, formerly the director of Legal Aid’s Eviction Defense Project.
“We have never, ever come close to stopping that percent of evictions so late in the court process,” she said. “Just the power of saying to a tenant, at that point when they’ve just about given up, the government is ready to write a check to keep you in your home.”
Avoiding the worst
Just knowing about LTLAN can provide some relief during the daunting process of eviction, Lehmkuhl said. As a volunteer canvasser, she reached out to people with pending eviction cases. But now she’s a client as well.
Lehmkuhl’s landlord is trying to force her to move out, she said, threatening to change her locks without filing a formal eviction. Lehmkuhl is staying at home with her lease and a copy of the District’s Tenant Bill of Rights nearby, just in case the police come.
“That’s a really scary position to be in, and I was experiencing a lot of shame,” Lehmkuhl said.
Even with her experience with the hotline and a background in law, she has felt overwhelmed researching her rights and figuring out where she’d go if the worst happens.
Lehmkuhl doesn’t have any family in the area, and even if she could stay at a friend’s house, she doesn’t know where she’d put her belongings. She has worked in social services most of her career and said she has never made enough to have savings.
“It just opens up this whole horrifying horizon of all these things I’d have to contemplate,” Lehmkuhl said.
Eviction can have a slew of destabilizing effects for families and individuals, Mellen said. After being forced to move, people often lose their job and suffer from depression and worsening health conditions. These effects can deepen already gaping racial and gender inequalities; 67% of LTLAN clients are women and 80% are Black.
Being evicted also makes it harder to find housing, Desai pointed out.
“Often, it’s seen that poverty is the cause of evictions, but it usually is the other way around — evictions lead to poverty,” he said.
This is just the start
LTLAN is not the beginning or end of D.C.’s effort to expand legal aid services to low-income residents. D.C. took its first step toward guaranteeing the right to a lawyer for civil cases in 2004, creating the Landlord-Tenant Resource Center in Landlord-Tenant Court. Eligible tenants were able to obtain informal referrals from the Pro Bono Center to three providers with offices in the court building: Bread for the City, Rising for Justice, and the Legal Aid Society. In 2017, the city established a grant program to fund free legal services for low-income residents, distributing grants to those same groups.
The emergence of COVID-19 in March 2020 disrupted many services, including the Landlord-Tenant Resource Center. By coincidence, the four groups had planned to debut an in-person central point of intake on March 16, the same day the courthouse shut down. Organizers regrouped and instead launched LTLAN in its current form three months later, with Neighborhood Legal Services Program and Legal Counsel for the Elderly added to the roster of service providers.
Now, LTLAN is poised to grow next year thanks to a $3 million boost in the District’s fiscal year 2023 budget, bringing the total D.C. funding for the program and participating organizations to at least $8 million.
A similar coordinated intake and referral system for all legal aid services in the District is slated to launch by 2024, according to Michanda Myles, the network project manager at the D.C. Bar Foundation. The service will likely operate much like LTLAN, but will include over 50 organizations that work on unemployment, public benefits, immigration and family cases and more.
In the meantime, Lark urged any tenants worried about their housing stability to reach out to the services available to help them avoid eviction.
“You don’t want this to happen to other folks. People really deserve stability and not walking on eggshells and feeling like they are drowning,” Lark said. “I’ve definitely felt like that.”
This post has been updated to clarify references to the D.C. Bar Foundation’s plans for a similar coordinated intake and referral system.
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.