A Warmer Welcome Home….

Posted on Dec 21, 2016 in Clients, DC Budget, DC Policies and Plans, Homelessness, Housing, Human Rights, Justice, Law | 0 comments

Yesterday, the DC Council, in its final legislative meeting of this session, passed several bills that will make it easier for low-income residents to obtain and maintain employment and housing. While much of the attention on the Council and in the press was, deservedly, on a game-changing paid family and medical leave act, a bill passed unanimously that could be a game changer for many DC residents seeking housing: the Fair Criminal Record Screening Act for Housing (FCRSAH).

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Discriminatory Development Practices And The Affordable Housing Crisis in DC

Posted on Aug 26, 2016 in Advocates, Clients, DC Budget, DC Policies and Plans, Homelessness, Housing, Human Rights, Justice, Law, Non Profit, People, Poverty, Wealth Gap | 1 comment

Yesterday, Covington & Burling LLP, along with the Washington Lawyers Committee, filed a lawsuit challenging Mid-City Financial’s plans to demolish the 535 units of affordable housing that sit on over 20 acres of land and currently make up the community known as Brookland Manor. This represents a significant step forward in the longstanding battle to preserve affordable housing at this historic site in the Northeast quadrant of Washington DC. The complaint alleges that the current redevelopment proposal put forth by Mid-City seeks to exclude and displace up to 150 African-American families by eliminating family-sized units (three-, four- and five-bedroom units). The complaint further states that this elimination will have a discriminatory and disproportional impact on families with minor children. The lawsuit seeks an order from the court halting the proposed redevelopment, contending that Defendants’ proposal violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act. For the last two years, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has represented the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association. The Residents Association is in full support of the above lawsuit being filed and stands in solidarity with the named plaintiffs to the action. All members of the Residents Association currently live at Brookland Manor and have been actively engaged in resisting the proposed demolition of their community. This resistance has come in the form of challenging the redevelopment at the Zoning Commission and working with their fellow residents to organize and take control of this development process at the grassroots level. The local community group ONE DC has also been a crucial ally to the Residents Association in helping to organize members. From the beginning, the Residents Association at Brookland Manor has been clear that they will not allow themselves to be displaced and have their community erased by this redevelopment.  Further, they have demanded to be treated in a dignified and respectful way by Mid-City. To date, the developer has balked at these notions of respect and dignity and has instead engaged in underhanded tactics to clear the property of existing residents in hopes of demolishing the building without the “inconvenience” of having to deal with the families that currently call this community their home. You can read more about these underhanded tactics here and here. Earlier this month, a private security company hired by Mid-City threatened to arrest organizers from ONE DC and some Legal Clinic staff at the property. The “crime” alleged by security was that the attorneys and organizers were attempting to speak to tenants at the property and inform them of their right to organize and of how the proposed redevelopment would affect them. Unfortunately, Brookland Manor is just one example of many instances of dishonest...

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A Step Toward Ending Discrimination Against Housing Applicants with Criminal Records

Posted on Jul 18, 2016 in Advocates, Clients, Criminalization, DC Policies and Plans, Homelessness, Housing, Human Rights, Justice, Law, People, Poverty, Uncategorized | 2 comments

On July 11th, the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary held a public hearing on Bill 21-0706, the “Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act of 2016 (the “Bill”).” Introduced by Councilmembers McDuffie and Bonds in April of this year and cosponsored by 10 members, the Bill aims to fight discrimination against housing applicants with criminal records. In particular, it aims to preclude housing providers from requiring applicants to disclose their criminal history before a conditional offer has been made and it limits the types of accusations and convictions that can be used to deny housing to an applicant. The Bill is an extension of the “Fair Criminal Record Screening Act of 2014” (also known as “Ban the Box”) which restricts the ability of employers to inquire about and use criminal records to deny applicants employment opportunities. For so many, having a criminal history poses a substantial barrier in obtaining housing, often regardless of the type of offense, the amount of time that has passed since the conviction, or even whether an individual was ultimately convicted. That criminal history can be used to deny housing to an individual perpetuates the damaging racial and socioeconomic discrimination so deeply rooted in our criminal justice system. At the hearing, a number of witnesses presented heartbreaking accounts of the hardships they experienced in seeking housing upon reentry. One woman shared that after being arrested for defending herself, she was turned away from temporary housing before the case had even gone to court. Another woman discussed relapsing after being repeatedly denied housing due to her criminal record and, despite her determined efforts to recover from her addiction and find housing, revealed that she is still homeless today. We have heard countless stories from our own clients’ frustrating application denials. One of our clients could not find someone to rent to her because of a 20-year-old solicitation conviction. Since the conviction, she had raised a family and developed a disability. Unable to find housing, she died in a homeless shelter. Like several of the other advocates testifying, we presented recommendations to further strengthen the Bill in its efforts to confront this pervasive issue. Specifically, we encourage the DC Council to expand the Bill to also cover considerations of rental and credit history, which present comparable discriminatory issues and are often used as a proxy for criminal screenings. In addition, we call for the Bill’s language to be tightened to better adhere to the federal guidance on fair housing compliance, for example, by limiting the time period and types of offenses that can be considered. Another key amendment to the Bill would require landlords to notify tenants of the reason for their denial and would provide stronger...

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An Identity Crisis

Posted on Jun 10, 2016 in Benefits, Clients, DC Policies and Plans, Law, Poverty | 0 comments

Yesterday, DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Committee on Transportation and the Environment held a joint hearing on Bill B21-0736, “Improving Access to Identity Documents Amendment Act of 2016.” The Bill was introduced by Councilmembers Grosso and Alexander in an effort to tackle one of the many obstacles that low-income DC residents face when trying to obtain necessary government IDs. If enacted, the bill would waive fees associated with obtaining vital records, IDs, and driver’s licenses for DC residents whose income falls under 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.

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Significant Progress on the Plan to Close DC General

Posted on May 24, 2016 in Advocates, DC Budget, DC Policies and Plans, Homelessness, Human Rights, Hypothermia, Justice, Law, People, Poverty, Shelter, Wealth Gap | 0 comments

Last Tuesday, the DC Council made changes to the Mayor’s proposed legislation to close the DC General family shelter and voted unanimously in favor of the bill. (It requires two votes to become law). We strongly support the changes to the bill and urge the Mayor and Council to work out any remaining kinks and expeditiously finalize and pass this important legislation. The new version of the bill maintains the overall approach proposed by Mayor Bowser—that DC General be replaced with smaller shelters dispersed throughout the District. It also keeps more than half of the sites that the Mayor recommended (Wards 1, 4, 7 and 8). The major changes are to authorize DC to purchase or use eminent domain to acquire the Wards 1 and 4 properties, and to switch the Wards 3, 5, and 6 sites for specific DC-owned properties. The Council also included capital dollars in the FY17 budget to fund such acquisition and/or development of the properties into shelters. If none of the sites are leased, the District will save about $165 million. In our view, the changes to the bill fairly reflect three months of community input into the specifics of the Mayor’s plan. The Mayor has held at least two community meetings in each ward to solicit input on the plan and the Council held a hearing at which we testified on March 17th. Overwhelmingly, community members supported the Mayor’s overall approach to closing DC General yet raised serious concerns about high leasing costs, the short term of shelter leases when family homelessness looks to be a long term problem, the lack of private bathrooms and cooking space in the designs, and problems with the sites in Wards 3, 5 and 6. There were sign-on letters from advocacy organizations, letters from health professionals, and multiple stories in the press that echoed these concerns (such as the Ward 5 site’s asthma risks, the Ward 6 site’s proximity to the Blind Whino, and overall costs). For the sites in Wards 3, 5 and 6, there were also significant concerns about upcoming zoning battles and resulting delays. Of the three sites replacing the Mayor’s suggestions, at least two (Wards 3 and 5) were proposed as alternatives by Ward constituents and Councilmembers to the Mayor’s office and vetted openly. It’s easy to become distracted by the political drama surrounding this issue, but step back for a moment, and we achieve a brighter perspective. First, this is how democracy should work. The Mayor can and should take leadership to propose a major initiative that the Administration will have to execute. And when that initiative is laid out in legislation, it is up to the Council to hold a hearing and mark up the...

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With Major Increase in Counted Homeless Families in DC, A Silver Lining and an Opportunity

Posted on May 11, 2016 in Budget Cuts, Clients, DC Budget, DC Policies and Plans, Homelessness, Housing, Human Rights, Law, People, Poverty, Shelter, Wealth Gap | 0 comments

Today, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) released the results of its annual Point-in-Time Count (PIT) of homeless persons in the region, including those in shelter or transitional housing as well as those staying on the street. While the number of counted homeless individuals fell by 3.8% since 2015, the number of counted families (1491) rose by almost 32% since last year’s report. That number may raise alarms, and it should, but not for the reasons you might suspect. This year’s PIT count is a significantly more accurate reflection of the number of families in DC facing homelessness than in years prior. Our challenge now as a community is to meet this need for affordable housing head on. For years, the District artificially kept down the number of counted homeless families by severely restricting access to emergency shelter services, both during hypothermic weather, when families have a right to shelter, and outside of it, when they do not. Under the Gray Administration, in the spring, summer and fall months, shelter units were left vacant while families slept out on the streets or in other unsafe situations. The myriad of practices and policies violating the rights of homeless families and dissuading them from further seeking services led us to publish a report in the winter of 2013 titled “Should DC Residents Need a Lawyer to Access Emergency Shelter?” Even for families that applied for shelter on nights when the hypothermia alert was in effect, the Gray Administration’s use of recreation centers as shelter in winter of 2014-2015 led to families choosing alternatives like sleeping in their cars because they felt safer there than in unsecure and communal gymnasiums. (A class action lawsuit and later, the DC Council’s legislation, ended this practice). Not only did all of the above lead to an undercounting of DC homeless families in the PIT count (because families who cannot access resources are not included in the count), but it likely contributed to increased numbers of families not getting the help they needed and falling deeper into crisis. In the past year, the Bowser Administration has enacted a much more humane and efficient approach to serving families where they are. For the first time in years, DC’s Department of Human Services began placing families in shelter this past spring and summer, even outside of hypothermia season. Although not all families who needed shelter were placed, many more were placed than in previous years (464 families according to the MWCOG report). And this past winter, despite unprecedented numbers of homeless families in the system, DHS managed to meet the needs of families applying for shelter with lawful placements and reduced unlawful family shelter denials by 40%. As stated...

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