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Facing Eviction, Chinatown Tenants Found Hope With Pro Bono Help

By Jeffery Leon

October 27, 2016


The Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC) provides legal assistance and resources to low-income Asian immigrants in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Northern Virginia in areas such as immigration, employment law, housing, abuse prevention, and more. In recent years, APALRC has been assisting the residents of Museum Square, a 302-unit apartment building in D.C.’s Mount Vernon Square neighborhood that is majority Chinese. Many of the building’s residents risked losing their Section 8 subsidies and their homes following the property management’s announcement in late 2013 to demolish the building.

Zenobia Lai, APALRC’s executive director from 2011 to 2015, shares more about the organization’s role in helping the residents of Museum Square. Lai is currently the legal director of the St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance at the Catholic Charities of Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

How did APALRC become involved in the Museum Square case? 

Museum Square came to us [in 2013] through a community partner, the Asian Senior Center, which [serves] the elderly Asian community in Chinatown, providing social services and a lunch program. Many of the seniors who live in Museum Square are members of the Senior Center. We started to have a monthly intake at the center around the same time, so because of our relationship with the staff there, they would do referrals to us.

Around the end of September 2013 we received a notice distributed to tenants from the owner of Museum Square, saying that they intend to discontinue the Section 8 contract in a year and the notice served as the one-year notice to tenants required by law. That's when [the residents] brought the issue to the attention of the [Senior Center], which contacted us directly.

How did APALRC respond? 

APALRC is a small legal services program. At the time, and [even] now, we only had four attorneys, and we cover the District, Maryland, and Virginia, so we knew right away that we needed capacity from somewhere else to help us take on this huge challenge. We had been monitoring the expiring use issue—owners of Section 8 buildings opting out of the program after prepaying the mortgage—for a few years and had been working with the tenants and Housing Counseling Services that provides tenant organizing [assistance]. This situation required lawyers, tenant organizers, and social services providers to make it successful; we couldn't have done it . . . without the other components.

We reached out to other legal services programs [with] expertise in this issue, as well as to the city. We knew that we needed to provide information to the tenants as soon as possible to inform them about their options when the contract ended and what they might do to keep their homes affordable. From our perspective, keeping the Section 8 contract would ensure the affordability of these housing units for the long term, so the tenants don't have to worry about moving out or moving to a different program.

I reached out to the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, specifically Julie Becker, who was the supervising attorney in their Housing Law Unit and now a judge in the D.C. Superior Court. We teamed up with her to figure out what other legal recourse we had for the tenants, but we learned early on that just the two organizations may not [be] enough resources to take this on and . . . achieve what we wanted for the tenants.

What happened next? 

The city organized several meetings with us and with different city departments in charge of housing and community development. Everyone's focus was on helping the tenants transition to the Section 8 voucher program available to individual households, but not to save the subsidy of the entire Museum Square. A major breakthrough came in the summer of 2014, when Washington City Paper covered Museum Square and our efforts. That coverage got us the attention of a nonprofit housing developer in the city, the National Housing Trust, which called us wanting to help. They also brought in the firm of Arnold & Porter, which was fortuitous to us as we were trying to reach out to firms for pro bono assistance on this massive case.

The Trust brought in a lot of resources from the firm to help figure out the possible legal issues and find experts to help us figure out the value of the building, because the owner was offering to sell it for $250 million. We knew that the property was worth a lot of money, but definitely not $250 million. The expert retained by Arnold & Porter helped us understand the market value of the building, which became an important legal argument to help us win the case.

By the summer of 2014, the Museum Square tenants had three teams of lawyers helping them on this case: Arnold & Porter, Julie Becker and her team at Legal Aid, and APALRC.

APALRC worked directly with the tenants. Tell us more about it. 

By our count more than half of the tenants of Museum Square speak Chinese, so I was working with the community partner to have regular meetings with the Chinese-speaking tenants, in addition to the general tenant association membership meeting to make sure that everyone is on the same page. We wanted to make sure they knew what was happening in the process and tried to lower the anxiety as they transitioned to another program, and to assure them that if they want to live in Museum Square, they could with the voucher and still pay the same amount of rent.

We divided up our roles in the whole representation process since 300 units are a lot of people to manage. So with Arnold & Porter taking the lead on litigation, we were able to continue to engage the tenants . . . and helped them transition to the Section 8 voucher program, which was really important in empowering the tenants through the process.

As the case winded through the court process, a challenge was how do we hold the group together as a tenant association, because the right to sue is with the association, not with the tenants. So how do we keep the group together over an extended period of time and not have people lose faith that anything good is going to come [out of] this process? It's a constant process of meeting with residents, sharing with them what their rights are, and [explaining] what the legal process can and cannot do. It’s important to have the legal services providers grounded in the client community and constantly stay in touch with them so that we can defuse rumors and provide timely assurances.

What is the status of the case? 

At the trial court, we had a series of hearings. We filed the case in October 2014 and had hearings in early 2015. We moved for summary judgment against the owner at the close of discovery, arguing that under no set of facts could the owner prevail under the law. The crucial argument was, what is a bona fide offer? How did the owner come up with the $250 million sale price? Could that offer of sale be possibly a bona fide offer? The answer to these questions hinges on whether the projected value of the building in the year 2021 as claimed by the owner could possibly be a fair and honest price in 2014.

The key issue of the case became whether a dollar in seven years’ time is worth the same as it is in 2014. The court said no, you need to discount for the time value of the dollars—the owner must discount future value of the property to its present value. That was the crux of the decision that allowed for the judge to rule in favor of the tenant association in our summary judgment motion. The owner appealed this decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

In September 2016, the D.C. Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that there needs to be a discount put into consideration in order for the offer of sale to be considered bona fide. The challenge with this case is that the statute, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, does not define what is a “bona fide offer.” The Court of Appeals . . . decided in a 2003 case involving the Phillips Collection [museum] that a bona fide offer is one that is objectively honest and fair, to be determined on a case-by-case basis. In our case, the Court of Appeals still does not define what a bona fide offer means, and so it's a very case-specific decision they've made in sustaining the lower court decision.

How can attorneys get involved in pro bono work? 

APALRC [has] been very fortunate to have Arnold & Porter on the Museum Square case. We have also worked with other law firms in a major human trafficking case involving dozens of victims. If attorneys in private practice are interested in working on a case, they should not be deterred because they are not experts in that particular area of law. They can rest assured that their legal services partners will be more than willing to provide the training on the substantive law and mentor them through the case.

If anyone is interested in taking on a pro bono case from the APALRC, they can contact its executive director, Naznin Saifi, at [email protected].