A paper published in City & Community, “Navigating an Overburdened Courtroom: How Inconsistent Rules, Shadow Procedures, and Social Capital Disadvantage Tenants in Eviction Court,” explores the experiences of tenants in eviction court and uncovers the complex challenges they face. Eviction courtrooms in Washington, D.C. are overflowing as they attempt to process an average of 148 cases per day. The high case volume and the pressure such a volume puts on court staff result in spaces that are highly chaotic and difficult to navigate for tenants. The new paper identifies distinct ways in which tenants are disadvantaged by courtroom practices, including unclear courtroom policies and procedures which are applied inconsistently. Unclear and inconsistent policies make it difficult for tenants to know where to be and what to do, particularly for tenants with physical disabilities, tenants who do not speak English, and tenants who have difficulty reading or writing.
The research uses data from more than 420 hours of ethnographic observations undertaken between February 2018 and February 2019 in Washington, D.C.’s Landlord-Tenant Court. The researchers also drew on informal conversations with tenants, landlords, attorneys, and court staff within the building and incorporated administrative records from the court to provide complementary information about the number of court cases and the distribution of case outcomes.
Unpredictable procedures and unclear policies were found to generate major disadvantages for tenants. As an example, the authors illustrate the confusion faced by tenants navigating the building and finding their assigned rooms. There is little signage in the building, and when asking about how to report, tenants are given different answers about where to go and whether they need to sign in. The lack of clarity is compounded for tenants with physical disabilities, who must enter the building at an alternate entrance with no signage. Meanwhile, rules in the courtroom are applied inconsistently, making it difficult for tenants to discern what these rules are. For example, the court goes into recess at seemingly random times, and the duration of recess is often not announced. Not only does this delay proceedings – keeping tenants from their work or family responsibilities – but tenants who leave the courtroom face the risk of missing their hearing if they not return at the correct time.
Some courtroom procedures take place outside of a formal hearing, which can also disadvantage tenants. These “shadow” procedures include settlement agreements and consent settlement agreements, in which the landlord and tenant agree to terms according to which the landlord will not evict. Generally, these agreements specify a time by which back rent must be paid before a tenant faces eviction. Yet the agreements are risky for tenants because they may result in tenants unknowingly agreeing to terms that are not in their favor. One tenant, for example, agreed to move out of his apartment within three weeks but learned after talking to a tenant attorney that he was entitled to more time.
Finally, the researchers find that landlords and their attorneys spend much more time in court, allowing them to build social capital with judges, clerks, and other court staff. Landlords and their attorneys often know court staff by name, and some have personal relationships with staff. When attorneys are not in attendance during a proceeding, for example, staff may know how to reach out to them personally – an advantage not afforded to most tenants.
These disadvantages are all exacerbated by the fact that tenants rarely have their own legal counsel, while landlords almost always have an attorney. The authors suggest that the myriad disadvantages faced by tenants necessitate multi-level policy solutions. To prevent tenants from accruing rental debt in the first place, the District of Columbia should invest more in affordable housing development and tenant subsidies. For tenants that do accrue rental debt, continued investment in interventions like the Emergency Rental Assistance Program could help tenants resolve their arrears without having to go to court. Lastly, guaranteeing a right to counsel for tenants would make the courtroom process more transparent and navigable for renters.
Read the report at: https://bit.ly/3k4WFlT