Kurt Jacobs, Co-recipient of Laura N. Rinaldi Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year, Helps Prevent Homelessness Through Landlord-Tenant Pro Bono Practice

By District of Columbia Bar

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Kurt Jacobs is a counsel in the Washington office of Sidley Austin LLP and a member of the firm’s Energy Practice Group. His dedication to pro bono service is evident throughout his 22 years of legal practice in the District. He has represented numerous pro bono clients in housing matters, including filing suits to restore clients’ participation in the Section 8 voucher program, stopping a loan consolidation company’s foreclosure on an elderly woman’s home, representing a client denied housing because of her disability, defending tenants in landlords’ suits for possession and providing information to scores of tenants and landlords through the Landlord Tenant Resource Center.

He has worked on a broad range of pro bono matters, including assisting federal public defenders with Supreme Court briefs. From 2008 to 2014, he served as Vice President, President and Immediate Past President of Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington, a nonprofit that assists indigent persons to find housing and jobs in the Washington Metropolitan area. 

DCBV: While your daily practice is with the Energy Practice group at Sidley Austin LLP doing energy regulatory litigation and counseling, your pro bono practice is primarily in landlord-tenant law. Why the interest in landlord-tenant practice?

KJ: Preventing homelessness is of enormous importance to my landlord/tenant clients and their children and it brings me profound satisfaction. Keeping a roof over their heads enables clients to retain their basic human dignity and keep jobs. It also makes it easier and more likely that they will obtain employment, pursue GED degrees and other education goals, and provide stability for their children. Representing a person whose section 8 housing voucher has been terminated by the D.C. Housing Authority, or whose landlord is suing them for possession, takes skill and determination.

However, it takes only a moderate amount of time relative to many other types of legal proceedings and produces a world of good for the client. I have also found that bringing suit to restore terminated housing benefits to an indigent client raises many issues that are similar to those found in an energy regulatory practice or any administrative law practice. I enjoy advocating for fairness, accountability and reasonableness in the housing context, just as in energy and other administrative contexts.

DCBV: What is the Landlord-Tenant Resource Center and how does it work?

KJ: The Landlord-Tenant Resource Center is an office suite within Building B of the D.C. Superior Court. From 9 am to 12 pm, Monday through Friday, landlords and tenants who have proceedings pending in Landlord-Tenant Court or who simply have a landlord-tenant problem come to the Center to obtain information relevant to their case or problem from volunteer attorneys. Often, a law firm agrees to staff the Center with three attorneys and a paralegal for one morning each month.

Volunteers interview each landlord or tenant, extract and summarize the facts relevant to the pending case or problem, then consult with a D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program attorney specializing in landlord-tenant matters. If the landlord or tenant chooses to make a filing in the Landlord Tenant Court, the volunteer may also help them draft that filing. During one four-hour session, a volunteer attorney often interviews and provides legal information to between four and eight tenants or landlords.

DCBV: Beyond volunteering at the Landlord Tenant Resource Center, you’ve also taken and successfully handled several full pro bono housing cases. Can you compare the experience of volunteering through the Center’s pro-se brief assistance model and the long-term pro bono representation model?

KJ: Volunteering at the Center is a brief but intense experience. Wrapping one’s head around the circumstances of four to eight different tenants or landlords and the legal options available to them in a single session can be draining and a bit of an emotional roller coaster. There are uplifting moments when there is helpful legal information to give a landlord or tenant.

And, there are depressing moments: sometimes a tenant has no resources or legal defenses and almost certainly will be evicted, or a landlord of modest means who has long suffered a problem tenant will likely be in a financially burdensome or physically threatening situation for months to come. There are large numbers of people who are helped significantly by my volunteer work in just one session at the Center, while there are many who come too late to be helped.

Though it takes time, the “long-term” model affords an actual attorney-client relationship as we see the case though from beginning to end. These cases have often been prescreened by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program or Bread for the City and thus have a better than average likelihood of ending in success for the client. The long-term approach provides the deep satisfaction of investigating and developing all the factual circumstances and creative legal arguments helpful to the client, as well as exercising skill in brief and motion writing, oral argument, and hearings, and sometimes setting a precedent that will be helpful to others. 

DCBV: Briefly, can you share a few of the major housing issues facing low-income D.C. residents—and what a lawyer can do to help?

KJ: One major issue that low-income D.C. residents face is the threatened or actual termination of their federally funded Section 8 vouchers and related rent support, which usually results in a suit for possession for nonpayment of rent filed by their landlord. While D.C. residents in the Section 8 program are required to recertify their eligibility every year, they often never receive notices of recertification meetings with the housing authority.

Similarly, they often fail to receive notices of alleged deficiencies (i.e., missing documents) in the hefty recertification packets they are required to file. In litigating these cases, however, one often finds only drafts of notices, or no notices, and no actual proof of mailing in DCHA’s files. Attorneys can represent low-income D.C. residents in suits seeking restoration of their Section 8 vouchers and the federal housing subsidy to which they are legally entitled, raising claims of lack of notice, lack of due process, and failure by the agency to follow its own regulations, thereby fending off the landlord’s possession suit until wrongfully terminated vouchers are restored.

A second major issue faced by low-income residents with disabilities is the loss of housing due to housing providers’ unlawful refusal to accommodate disabilities. Low-income residents are frequently denied or forced out of housing due to disabilities such as blindness or wheelchair use, and can benefit enormously from representation by an attorney willing to fight for their disabled clients’ right to have a home.

DCBV: What was the most rewarding pro bono experience you have had so far in your career? Do you have a most memorable client or matter, or any one client or matter that sticks with you?

KJ: Most of my pro bono clients and representations stick with me and have been very rewarding. I recently represented a young mother of an infant whose landlord sought to evict her on grounds that she allegedly repeatedly caused disruptions despite receiving a notice to correct her behavior or be evicted. Investigation revealed that an employee of the landlord had repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, propositioned her. He was also responsible for filing tenant infraction reports against her, alleging disruptions, which were largely fabricated.

Further, the landlord’s discovery responses failed to identify any alleged disruptions occurring between the end of a thirty-day statutorily required “correction period” set out in the landlord’s notice and the date the landlord initiated its suit for possession, providing grounds for granting summary judgment in favor of the client, and enabling her to continue to have housing, rather than live in a shelter, and to pursue a nursing degree. 

In a different area, law firm colleagues and I represented, and wrote the briefs for Mr. Dickerson, in United States v. Dickerson, in which the Supreme Court reaffirmed that Miranda warnings are constitutionally required, and which led to me appearing twice on MSNB’s show Equal Time to debate Col. Oliver North about the merits of Miranda warnings and the Supreme Court’s opinion reaffirming that they are constitutionally required. Both of these pro bono representations, and numerous others, have been immensely rewarding and continue to stick with me.